A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming an Informed Voter
Created Naomi Matthusen on May 25, 2020
Simple Steps to Becoming an Informed Voter
Before we delve into the details, here is a 6-step, simple outline to becoming an active and informed voter.
- Register to vote
- Find out who and what is on your ballot
- Research candidates and campaign issues
- Find out your voting dates
- Locate your polling place
Where Do I Even Start?
If you are someone that knows absolutely nothing about politics, that is okay! By reading this guide, you can still become an informed and educated voter pretty quickly. Here is our comprehensive guide to becoming an active, informed voter.
Why Should I Vote?
If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice. Our democracy allows us to enjoy the rights and freedoms that we have and allows us to voice our opinion in how we want our government to be run. Voting affects who wins office and thus affects every aspect of our lives–health care, taxes, education, jobs, benefits, the roads, and much more. Voting allows citizens to elect people, representatives, that represent their values and beliefs. If you do not vote, you are giving up your voice and your beliefs on these key issues that affect all facets of your daily life.
Though some just really do not enjoy reading and watching the news, we would encourage you to have a well-rounded understanding of current politics and to stay informed with current events on a regular basis. Alongside our website, some other reliable news sources include Associated Press, Bloomberg, NPR, ABC News, The Christian Science Monitor, and BBC. If you feel so inclined, you can also watch the debates to see which candidates’ opinions most align with your own. Although staying up-to-date on current events and news is not a requirement in doing your research on candidates, it is still important to understand the context of events, given that candidates’ actions may affect your opinion on certain issues.
Where to Start: Are You Registered to Vote?
It is first important to check if you are registered to vote (in the state and district you live in). If you know that you are already registered to vote, you can move on and skip to the next section. If you are not sure if you are registered to vote, you can go to the National Association of Secretaries of State and click on “Voter Registration Status”. Then click on your state and type in your information. If you find that you are already registered to vote, you can move on. Typically, you have to register well in advance of Election Day. The U.S. Vote Foundation provides voter registration deadlines per state. Even if you will not make the deadline for the next Election Day, it is still important to register so that you can exercise your right to vote in the next election (after this one)!
If you find that you are not registered to vote, you can quickly register using the following steps. The large majority of states now have online voting. Here is a comprehensive list of the states that allow you to register to vote online with links to the websites in order to register. If your state is not listed, your state likely requires a paper ballot. Here is a list of the states that require a paper ballot with short explanations of how/where to undergo that process.
Where and When to Vote
For primaries, each state’s Election Day differs. Here is a list of the primary dates for each state.
The general election, however, always occurs each year on “the next Tuesday after the first Monday of November”. This year, 2020, Election Day falls on November 3rd. It is important to note that, even though presidential elections only occur every four years, elections still occur every year. State and local elections occur every year, congressional elections occur every two years, and presidential elections occur every four years.
If you are not sure where your voting precinct is this Vote.org link provides locations for voters based on their home address.
Do I Have to Pick a Party When I Vote?
For the general election, you do not have to worry about choosing a party before you go in to vote. You can just show up and vote.
However, for primaries, it depends. Some states require you to choose a party when you vote in the primary, and so you can only vote for the candidates in the party that you chose on (Primary) Election Day. Before you vote in the primary, check This National Conference of State Legislatures link (NCSL), which includes all of the different types of elections in each state with explanations of each. (All of the different types include open, closed, partially closed, partially open, open to unaffiliated voters, open, and two top.)
How to Find Out Who Will Be on Your Ballot
To find out who your choices are on your next ballot, most states provide sample ballots either in the mail or online. You can find your state’s election site from USAGov here to download your sample ballot. If you cannot find a sample ballot on your state’s election website, you can use your location or type in your address at Vote411 to generate your sample ballot.
It is important to know, based on your sample ballot, what municipality, township, county council, school district, state senate, state representative, and congressional district you live in in order to cast an informed vote. However, some people focus on some of those areas more than others when preparing to vote.
What to Consider When Researching Candidates
Oftentimes, political tactics or plays, such as electability, affect who someone might vote for, and thus many people might disagree on who to vote for, even if they have similar beliefs. However, when researching candidates on a ballot, one of your main goals should be to look for and vote for candidates that most align with your views, beliefs, and perspective. You want to vote for someone who you think will best represent you and your neighboring constituents well. Another important quality in a candidate is experience and knowledge in the given position or field they are running for, and someone that will listen to your concerns and take them into consideration when making decisions on your behalf. You may or may not want to look at their past decisions and choices as well, which may be insightful for how they might act or make decisions in office. Although it is often most important to look at the well-roundedness of a politician’s viewpoints, maybe you have one issue that means a lot to you, personally. You might want to research that one issue, and you may want to look at the key issues at stake in the election to see where certain candidates stand on those issues. Overall, you might want to consider the candidate’s background, beliefs, traits, positions, solutions to certain problems, and any other information relevant for you or to you.
How to Learn More About Each Candidate
The best way to learn more about candidates is to look at their past history and experience through the internet and to pay attention to the local news. A simple Google search of the candidates is a good place to start. Oftentimes, candidates will have a website or a bio online that you can read through. VoteSmart allows you to look at candidates and their recent actions, and allows you to compare candidates on the issues you select. Vote411 also allows you to compare candidates (and their positions on issues) to each other. OntheIssues allows you to look at specific candidates and all of their views on the various issues as well. Lastly, Ballotpedia also provides candidates’ stances on issues too. Sometimes it can be difficult to find information on candidates running for local office. In that case, your best option is to look at local news articles and biographies about them. Regardless of what site or news outlet you look into, though, you want to evaluate each source to ensure that you are obtaining reliable information about the candidate. Ultimately, it is important to simply do your best to find information on the candidates and to make the best, most informed decision that you can based on the information that you have.
Learning About the Measures on Your Ballot
On the ballots themselves, there are often ballot measures that you can vote for or against. Ballot measures are new laws that are proposed by citizens or by the state legislature, and they can be either state-wide or local. Ballotpedia and NCSL both provide access to these ballot measures that are up for vote in each state. You can learn about those measures on both of those websites as well as by searching them online and by paying attention to local news.
What to Bring on Election Day
Though it cannot hurt to bring an ID just in case, some states do not require one. This link on NCSL’s website lists all of the states that require IDs and what type of ID is required, if any. Otherwise, you might want to bring a piece of paper with you that has the candidates for whom you would like to vote for written down on it. However, it is important to keep in mind that you can not bring your phone with you while voting at the booth itself.
If You Can’t Make it to the Polls on Election Day
If you cannot make it to the polls on Election Day, there are several other options for you. All states will send you an absentee ballot upon request, though some states do require an excuse for submitting an absentee ballot. A few states allow mail-in ballots, and a lot of states now have early voting. Early voting is very convenient. You are less likely to wait in long lines if you early vote, and you can register to vote there at the site right before you cast your ballot. Access which states have early voting or in-person absentee voting here, and find out more information about how to obtain absentee and mail-in ballots here. Otherwise, check your state’s election website by going here, if you are looking for more information regarding the ballot-obtaining process in your specific state.
After the Election
After voting, your job is still not entirely done. You will still want to pay attention to who gets elected and who keeps their campaign promises. Does the politician you vote for do what they said they would, and do they vote for what they said they would vote for (if they are a Congressman)? Do they promote and maintain the values for which you voted for them for in the first place? Pay attention to and keep up with local, state, and national news to determine if you made the right choices while voting and to help you decide whether or not you would vote for that official again in the future.
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