How to Register and Vote in the United States

Updated on May 15, 2019
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Susette's interest in government stems from working in government, being a Peace Corps volunteer, and earning a masters in sustainability.

How many times have you wanted to vote, but somehow didn't get to it, then regretted not voting afterward? How often have you voted, but wished you'd voted a different way? Voting can be one of the most important responsibilities of citizens in a democratic country. It's not just important to do it, but also to do it well and with integrity.

If you're already registered to vote, and are tired of depending on other people or organizations to tell you how to vote, you can click on the link at the end of this article to find out how to do your own research. If you haven't registered or are wondering if it's worth it to vote, read on.

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Why People Don't Vote in the United States

Voting is a surprisingly emotional experience, whether you vote or not. Some (hopefully most) people will always vote, no matter how corrupt they see the system. Other people forget to register or can't make it to the polling station in time, but some take it as a matter of pride that they don't vote.

Here are some of the arguments for why people don't vote:

  • Rage––They are so enraged at the corruption they see in our government, that no amount of voting can counteract it.
  • Indifference––Politicians don't really affect a person's individual life and they're all the same anyway.
  • Impatience––The election system is so rigged that voting is just a waste of time.
  • Independence––The bipartisan contest makes you choose the lesser of two evils, instead of someone who's really good, which is a lousy way to vote.
  • Cynicism––Too many politicians are not in it for the people, but are only using it as a stepping stone to future, well-paying corporate jobs.
  • Apathy––Too much cynicism and confusion with the voting process, so why try?

Not voting is one way to handle these depressing situations. Another way is to empower yourself by making sure that you're voting with integrity––for people and legislation you've checked out and can trust.

Why People Do Vote in the United States

Many voters, but not all, are motivated by activism––either theirs or watching or reading about others in the news. People who vote do so for one or many of the following reasons:

  • Fear––They're worried that few others will vote, so they'd better vote themselves or democracy will seriously suffer.
  • Responsibility––They see voting as their primary civic duty.
  • Anger––The whole political system is rigged so, rather than not vote, they vote for people who will change the system.
  • Defiance––The bipartisan system sucks, so they're going to vote for every third party candidate on the ballot, just as a matter of principle.
  • Determination––They've been advocating for a particular candidate for a long time and are going to vote for them, no matter what.
  • Idealism––They've researched the candidates and are choosing those who are really in it for the public good, not their own private gain.
  • Loyalty––Either an existing legislator is doing a great job, or someone the voter knows is running for office.
  • Curiosity––They researched and voted their conscience and want to see if any of their choices win.
  • Excitement––They've never voted before and want to see what it's like.
  • Practicality––Voters may not have much influence on the federal system, but they do on the state and local ones, and all are on the same ballot.

It's not enough to demand change, if we don't vote too. We vote for legislators who will give us the change we're asking for––who are receptive to the well-being of the public.
It's not enough to demand change, if we don't vote too. We vote for legislators who will give us the change we're asking for––who are receptive to the well-being of the public. | Source

“If American women would increase their voting turnout by 10 percent, I think we would see an end to all of the budget cuts in programs benefiting women and children.” — Coretta Scott King

How to Register to Vote

Registering to vote is a lot easier now than it used to be, since the states and federal government have worked to simplify the process.

Technically, it's not states that register you, but counties. You can contact your county registrar directly, but a much easier way to register is to go to the new national registration website, USA.gov, and click on the "Register to Vote" link. Scroll down and click on "Start Your Voter Registration." It will ask for the state you live in, and give you a link to the form or instructions for what to do.

For example, if you enter "Mississippi" it will tell you you'll need to register by mail. You can download the form, fill it out, and send it with your ID to the address on the form, which should be the county headquarters.

The reason counties are the actual registering body is because they are in charge of the elections in their area. They mail sample ballots to registered voters ahead of time, set up and administer the in-person voting procedures, and count the votes afterward.

Voter Qualifications

The main qualification to vote in the United States is U.S. citizenship, of which you need proof (an official ID). If you vote without it, you risk being thrown in jail. You also must be a bona fide resident of the state in which you vote. And you must be 17 or 18 years old, depending on the state.

If you don't meet all of these qualifications––citizenship, residency, age, ID––you will be disqualified. In most states you are also disqualified if you are a felon, whether in or out of prison. (That may change in future, according to federal legislation being considered.)

New federal laws state that a county cannot require voters to register more than 30 days before an election. A few counties even let you register on the same day you vote. Your deadline will show on the county registrar's website.

Note that you cannot be registered to vote in more than one state and you cannot vote in a state where you are not registered. If you moved and forgot (or were too late) to register in the new location you'll need to pick up an absentee ballot to mail to your old precinct.

Registering Directly With the County

If you want to register with the county directly, to become familiar with the process from the inside out, you can do a search online for their website, making sure the URL you click on has a .gov extension.

  • On the home page enter "voter registration" in the search space or click the search button (magnifying glass) and enter it there.
  • You may have to click one or two more links to get to the actual registration form, but the web page will make it clear what to do.
  • This is the same way you would check to see if you are already registered, and to access the sample ballot if you didn't get one in the mail.

States Where You Can Register Online

All the states in dark green allow online registration. Oklahoma (light green) is working on it. The grey states do not allow online registration.
All the states in dark green allow online registration. Oklahoma (light green) is working on it. The grey states do not allow online registration. | Source

If your state does not allow registration online, you'll need to call your county clerk's office. Go online to the county website, look for "county clerk," find their contact information, and call or send them an email. You can either go to their office and register in person, have them send the registration form to you in the mail or, if the state allows it, wait until Election Day and register at the polls. In any case, the county clerk should guide you through the process.

However it is you register, you will still need to show that you're a U.S. citizen and a citizen of that county. If you're registering in person, be sure to bring:

  • a picture ID (passport, driver's license, or photo ID),
  • two bills or other correspondence that show where you live.

If you're registering by mail, make a copy of your ID and correspondence to send along with the registration form you filled out.

A few states register their residents automatically when they renew their drivers licenses. Oregon was the first state to do this in 2016. Eleven more followed, although all of them have not implemented it yet.

Are You Registered?

Registering in a Different Language

Did you know the United States does not have an official language? Not even English. Some U.S. citizens are hesitant to register and vote because they don't speak or read English very well.

National and state governments have acknowledged the problem, and many provide registration forms and/or voting assistance in different languages. Here are some examples:

  • The federal Election Assistance Commission put up downloadable registration forms in: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.
  • California has so many different enclaves of non-English speaking nationalities that the state provides a toolkit for counties to set up their own language accessibility committees.
  • Minnesota provides forms and voter assistance in: Hmong, Somali, Spanish, Afaan, Amharic, Vietnamese, Lao, Chinese, Khmer, and Russian.
  • Gwinitt County, Georgia, has started printing its forms in Spanish. It's the first county in that state to offer 2nd language assistance.

Check with your county to see if they can provide such assistance for you or someone you know. It can come in the form of a ballot printed in the other language, an assistant who speaks that language, an instructional webpage in the language, or some other way.

Early, Online & Absentee Voting

Once you've registered, you'll need to start planning how and when you're going to vote. Most states provide a few different ways to vote, if you can't make it to the polls in person on Election Day.

  • Voting early: Most counties let you vote early, if you can't make it to the polls on Election Day. You can vote anywhere from 7 days to a month before, depending on the county. Check your county website or call a county election official to find the dates and procedures for voting early.
  • Absentee voting: Every state allows for absentee voting, if you are going to be away from home on Election Day. You can apply for it online, download an absentee ballot, fill it out, and mail it to your county registrar. Nineteen states require that absentee ballots be returned via the post office. The others offer some form of return that's faster––like email, fax, or military mail.
  • Voting online: Estonia was the first country in the world to allow online voting in 2005. Since then, only a few other countries have tried. The U.S. has been cautious, mainly due to the ease of hacking and casting false votes. An online system has to be extremely secure in order to work properly. There are only four states that currently provide a portal through which their citizens can vote online (see map below) and they are limited to overseas military personnel.
  • Voting in person: This is how most people vote––by driving or walking to the polling place listed on their sample ballot, checking in and picking up a ballot, going to a booth to mark their votes, then dropping the ballot into a machine to be counted.

Forms of Online Voting Allowed by States

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“The future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Preparation for Voting in Person

Hopefully you've registered to vote well ahead of time. Once Election Day gets closer, there are several things you'll need to do to prepare. The first three are simple and shouldn't take much time. The 4th one will take time, but should be pretty interesting––that is, assuming you care about how officials in Washington DC affect your personal life.

1. Check That You're Really Registered to Vote

For this you'll need to locate your county registrar, if you haven't already. On the Internet do a search using keywords like "Broward County Registrar" or "Clark County Clerk." Click on the link that looks most like the official website, then look for "Voter Registration" or something similar. Click on that.

On the voter registration page, my county (Los Angeles) shows two main choices: "Register Now" and "Check if You're Registered." When I click on the second one it gives me a form to fill out with my name and pertinent identifying information. I do the search. It says I'm active, that I'm not voting by mail, it gives my party preference, and says my registration is valid. All information is correct, so I click off. If something were wrong I would click the edit button and change it.

2. Make Sure You Get a Sample Ballot or Voting Guide

Your county elections official is supposed to send sample ballots to everyone who is registered to vote. If you haven't received one by 2-3 weeks before Election Day, be sure to follow up with your county clerk. If you live in a fairly large city you might be able to download one directly from Ballotpedia. They collect sample ballots from the 100 biggest cities in the nation.

This step is important, if you're serious about voting responsibly. The sample ballot tells you who is running for each office, what kinds of legislation will be voted on, and the location of your polling place. It gives you multiple choice circles to fill in, so you can mark the way you want to vote on each item. I always take my completed sample ballot with me to my polling place.

Inside the cover of each sample ballot is a list of candidates and legislation available for voters to choose between. In California, each one has bubbles next to it that you can fill in to remind yourself of how you want to vote.
Inside the cover of each sample ballot is a list of candidates and legislation available for voters to choose between. In California, each one has bubbles next to it that you can fill in to remind yourself of how you want to vote. | Source

3. Locate Your Polling Place

Polling places are usually set up at local schools, churches, or community centers. Your sample ballot should have the location and address on the outside cover––that's one of the things sample ballots are for. If it doesn't or you didn't receive one, check the registrar's office online. They should have a form that asks for your address and will give you the polling place nearest you. Then it's important to check the place out physically, especially if you've never been there before.

My polling place is at an elementary school I've walked by a million times, so I knew right where it was. Even so, the first time I voted there I made it a point to check it out ahead of time. I just stood there in front of the school and imagined where the line would be and how I would walk in, check in with the polling assistants, get my ballot, and walk over to the polling booth to poke holes where I wanted them. Of course, I would take my sample ballot with me, so I could remember who and what I had decided to vote for.

Polling place in New Jersey. Most polling places in the United States are located at schools, community centers, or churches.
Polling place in New Jersey. Most polling places in the United States are located at schools, community centers, or churches. | Source

4. Choose How You're Going to Vote

Essentially, there are several ways you can decide how to vote, depending upon how determined you are to vote for the best candidate, and how much time you have to figure it out.

  • You can just vote party line.
  • You can vote for who your friends, family, or church likes.
  • You can vote for who the media likes.
  • Or you can do your own research and vote with full integrity for the person you think will do the best job.

It's important to vote thoughtfully, instead of just trying to choose who you think will win. Being a "winner" is only a temporary high. If the person you elected turns around and destroys the country, then there's nothing to be proud of anymore.

To find out different ways people choose candidates or legislation, click here.

5. Go to the Polls and Vote

You know where your polls are, because you drove around and placed them ahead of time. You'll have all day to get there, usually from about 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., depending on the county. (Check your sample ballot to make sure.) If you work, you can stop to vote on the way, during lunch hour, or on the way home. Your boss might even give you the morning off, if you ask.

The actual voting process is easy, once you get there. All you need to do is check in with your sample ballot, take the official ballot they give you, and go to where they tell you to fill it out. Use your sample ballot to remind yourself of how you want to vote.

After you've punched holes next to your choices, then take the ballot to the ballot machine nearby and put it in. Someone sitting there will show you how. They will also give you an "I voted!" sticker to put on, so others see and are reminded to vote themselves.

If you continually run into long voting lines, you might consider volunteering or applying for a job to help out with registration next year. Call your county registrar to see how to do that.

Source

Once you've registered and voted for the first time, you won't have to worry about registering again. If you change party affiliation, or if you read in the news about a glitch in the voting system, you can check with the country registrar to make sure everything is ok. After that, you should automatically receive a sample ballot in the mail for every new election, both federal and local, and that will alert you that it's almost time to vote again.

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