Voting for the first time? Here’s everything you need to know
Over the last four years, 15 million young people have become eligible to vote in the US and they can determine the result of the 2020 election.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
While November 3 is still a few weeks out, the 2020 presidential election is already well underway in the US. More than 22 million Americans have cast their ballots early, shattering voting records. Moreover, current projections suggest there will be a historic voter turnout this year — roughly ten times as many people have voted at this time, in comparison to the 2016 election.
In addition to these positive turnout signs in what has been an unprecedented election year, more than 15 million young people have turned 18 since the last election, making them eligible to vote. For some perspective on how consequential this new bloc of voters is, in 2016, fewer than 80,000 votes in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — determined the outcome of the election.
Although young people typically have lower voter participation rates compared to older generations, in 2020, the electorate will be mostly young people, with millennials and Gen Z comprising 51% of the US population. These generations have the ability to determine the results of the election, so it’s more important than ever to get out there and vote.
This clear guide to voting for the first time outlines voting rights and procedures. Here’s everything that you need to know before casting your ballot in 2020.
Register to vote and check your voter registration status
The first step to voting is registering to vote. While some states’ registration periods have passed, many are still open and even offer same-day voter registration. Be sure to check your voter registration status (here) to confirm you are registered, and if not, you can find your state’s voter registration deadlines here. See an issue with your registration status? Contact your local Board of Elections as soon as possible.
If you will not be 18 by November 3, you are unfortunately not eligible to vote in this election, but many states offer pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds. You can pre-register for the next election or pledge to register here.
Make a voting plan
Now that you are registered to vote, the next step is to create your voting plan. There are three main ways to cast your ballot: voting by mail, voting early and voting in-person on Election Day. There is no difference in how your vote will be counted, so choose the method you’re most comfortable with and that works best for your schedule.
Vote by mail
Voting by mail, also known as absentee voting, has been expanded in many states due to COVID-19. Though you typically need an excuse — a reason that you’re physically unable to make it to the polls — to request an absentee ballot, some states have expanded their policies in light of the pandemic. Voters that do not feel comfortable voting in-person due to coronavirus are eligible to request an absentee ballot. You can check for any changes to your state’s absentee voting policies here and find your state’s absentee ballot deadlines here.
Don't wait to request an absentee ballot or to mail yours in closer to Election Day. The United States Postal Service recommends people leave extra time (up to 15 days) to send in their ballots this year.
Vote in-person, early or on Election Day
Not every state offers early voting, but many do open polls early prior to Election Day. (Check the calendar here to see if your state offers early voting). The process is pretty self-explanatory, it’s like voting in-person on Election Day, except that you can vote on multiple days prior to November 3. This allows voters to have more flexibility and vote around their work schedule. Early voting also helps to spread out voters, reducing the lines and crowds that may be a deterrent on Election Day. Conveniently, early voting also allows for increased social distancing and helps ease the burden of mail-in ballots for the USPS.
Of course, you can also vote in-person on November 3. Poll sites should be abiding by COVID-19 safety precautions, with poll workers wearing masks, providing PPE, sanitizing polling stations and taking other necessary protections.
In either case, be sure to look up your polling place (here), and learn what materials you will need to bring with you in order to vote (here). Your state might require an ID or documents that prove your residence. Preparing in advance can help relieve the stress of voting for the first time.
Know your voting rights
If you encounter any issues voting, no matter how you cast your ballot, you should know that your right to vote is protected and any effort to suppress your vote is illegal. You can contact Election Protection at 866-OUR-VOTE with voting questions or issues.
The ACLU also provides plenty of resources outlining voting rights. For example, if the polls close while you’re still in line, stay in line — you have the right to vote. If you make a mistake on your ballot, you can ask for a new one. If the machines are down at your polling place, ask for a paper ballot. If for some reason a poll worker does not see your name on the list of eligible voters, you should request a provisional ballot. After Election Day, election officials will investigate whether you are registered and if you are registered, they will count your provisional ballot.
Additionally, leave your political attire at home. Most states enforce a dress code at polling places that ban poll workers and voters from displaying information for or against any candidate running for election.
Be an informed voter and inform others
Voting is the most effective when you are an informed voter. Before casting your vote, do some research about who is on your ballot, including your local offices and any ballot provisions, so that you can make your vote count. Ballot Ready is a great nationwide resource that will show you who and what will be on your ballot.
Voting is also most successful when it’s social — the most effective way to get someone to vote is through personalized outreach. This means sharing information about how to vote and building your voting plan with others. Another resource is 18by.vote, a youth-led, non-profit organization that aims to help 16, 17 and 18-year-olds understand how, when and why to vote. They work to ensure young voters feel not just equipped to vote for the first time, but supported, and have developed resources to answer all of your first-time voting questions. You can follow 18by.vote to stay informed about the election and visit their voting resources page here.
If new, first-time voters cast their ballots at the same rate as other demographics, they could determine not just this election outcome, but every election to follow and shape many decisions on issues that directly impact our lives.
Jazmin Kay is a 22-year-old writer, voting rights activist and Executive Director at 18by.vote, a non-partisan youth-led organization that aims to help young people understand how to vote, when to vote, and why to vote. Follow her on Twitter.