Your voice and your vote matter. Our elections depend upon participation by the electorate, including you. There are many ways to educate yourself and others and engage in the political process. This resource guide will walk you through all the components of being an active voter or volunteer: how to register, researching a candidate, developing an assessment scorecard, and getting involved by becoming a volunteer.
View the Executive Summary for this brief.
Listen to The Civic Leader Podcast for an audio version of this brief.
Registering to Vote
Most states require you to register in advance of an election, but some states allow same-day registration. See if your state allows same-day registration here, or check your state’s election dates and deadlines from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission or the U.S. Vote Foundation.
Unsure if you registered? USA.gov explains how to check (2 min):
You can check also check your registration at:
If you are not registered, there are lots of resources to help you register to vote:
- Visit USA.gov to register
- Visit U.S. Vote Foundation to understand how to register for the first time and to register, even if you are a student living away from home or studying abroad
- Visit Vote.org to register
- Visit The Skimm to register and see your state’s voting requirements
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also referred to as the Motor Voter Act) “requires states to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license.” This is particularly important for first-time voters, since many are of age to register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license.
Where to Go
On Election Day, you will go to your designated polling location to cast your ballot.
- Visit USA.gov to find your polling place or your State or Local Election Office
- See the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Day Contacts
- Visit Vote.org’s Polling Place Locator
- See Ballotpedia’s state-by-state poll times
If you know you will not be able to vote in person on election day, you can:
- Explore USA.gov’s early voting options, such as absentee voting.
- Explore Vote.org’s absentee ballot rules.
Be on the lookout for application deadlines, and be aware that some states are particular about first-time voters voting in person. The National Conference of State Legislatures breaks this down.
What to Bring
Almost all states require voters to present some form of identification when they go to vote. In particular, first-time voters are required to provide identification before they cast a ballot. According to the Help America Vote Act, “all states require identification from first-time voters who register to vote by mail and have not provided verification of their identification at the time of registration.”
- Visit USA.gov to find federal voting laws, voter ID requirements, and how to get a Voter Registration Card.
- Visit U.S. Vote Foundation to find your state’s voting requirements
- The National Conference of State Legislatures lists state-by-state voter identification requirements
What to Expect
Wondering what to expect when you walk into the polling location? Or how the machines function? PennLive presents an idea, with actual examples from two different polling locations (6 min):
Having an idea of what your ballot will look like is also helpful. For example, is your state or city one of those that uses ranked choice voting? If your state elects judges, you may see judicial candidates on your ballot. If your state has ballot initiative, measure, or referendum processes, you may be asked to vote on such measures.
See Ballotpedia’s Sample Ballot Lookup for an idea of what your ballot will look like and who is on it. This can give you an opportunity to do some research on the candidates running for office and issues pertaining to your state.
Researching a Candidate
As an active voter, you may be asking what races are taking place that could impact the future of your city or state. Check out Ballotpedia’s Elections Calendar to see statewide and local elections happening.
Once you know who is on your ballot and the positions they are seeking, you can do your due diligence to make sure your vote is as informed as possible. You can research a candidate’s voting records, previous government service, and endorsements that he or she has received. Do a quick news search to see what articles have been written about the candidates from various outlets, or view the candidate’s social media to get an understanding of their values.
See Ballotpedia’s Candidate Connection to find out more about your candidate. If your candidate has not filled out the survey, encourage them to do so by sharing this form. Also on Ballotpedia’s Candidate Conversations and A Starting Point, you can find virtual debates and answers to important policy questions from candidates and elected officials.
If you understand your candidate’s background but still have remaining questions, email the candidate. You may want to ask them some questions to get a better sense of who they are and where they stand on major issues:
- Why are you running?
- What is the best system for people to create a future for themselves and their family?
- What should the role of government (or agency they are running for) be?
- What is your view on _____, _____, and ________? (Ask about the most pressing issues in your state, e.g. the debt, health care, or infrastructure.)
- How will you work with your colleagues in office?
Likewise, ask prospective candidates about their stances on specific issues that interest you. Nearly every issue has a national organization that follows it and produces a ‘ballot guide’ on their topic(s) of interest. These guides can be helpful as they break down the issues from tangled legalese into comprehensible language for the average voter. Depending on your interests, you can search for ballot guides on those issues from reputable organizations, such as BallotReady.
Developing an Assessment Scorecard
To assess a candidate based on your values and what is most important to you, it is helpful to create a scorecard to record your findings. Consider the following:
- Beliefs (Government’s Role, Taxes, Private Property Rights, and Special Interest Collusion)
- Governability (Relative Life Experience, Relevant Issues Knowledge, Political Savvy, Leadership and Team-Building Skills)
- Electability (Campaign Ability, Reputation, Financial Strength, Speaking Ability, Name Recognition)
In addition to knowing who will be on your ballot, it is also important to know what will be on your ballot. A ballot measure “is a law, issue, or question that appears on a state or local ballot for voters to decide.” A ballot initiative is a ballot measure specifically “put on the ballot for voter consideration through people collecting signatures.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the process begins when a citizen or group of citizens proposes a petition and files it with state officials. The state officials then review the petition, and if approved, give the initiative a title and summary. The petition is then circulated to obtain the required number of signatures of registered voters. If this occurs, it is submitted to state election officials again, who organize for the measure to go on the ballot, either directly or indirectly via legislative approval.
See Ballotpedia’s Ballot Initiative Map for more on the ballot initiative process and the National Conference of State Legislature’s Ballot Measures Database for ballot measures that will be on your ballot.
The Policy Circle is a platform to convene and encourage people to be informed about candidates and policy issues, and to discuss their ballots, so we can all be prepared voters in the voting booth.
Important Roles at the Polls
In addition to voting, the most effective way you can participate in elections is by serving as a poll worker, also called election officials or election judges. Serving at a polling location can help ensure that election rules are followed, thus ensuring the integrity of the results and that everyone who is eligible to vote gets an opportunity to do so. Read more in The Policy Circle’s Elections & Election Integrity Brief.
Poll workers receive training specific to their county or municipality, but in general all poll workers are responsible for the administration of election procedures at the polling place on Election Day. This includes:
- Checking in voters
- Issuing ballots
- Answering voters’ questions
- Setting up and testing the voting equipment prior to the polls’ opening
- Staying past the time of polls’ closing to tally the ballots or secure voting equipment
To serve as a poll worker you must meet the eligibility requirements in your state. Most states generally require the following:
- Be a citizen of the United States and in good standing;
- Be able to speak, read, and write the English language;
- Not be a candidate for any office in the election and not be an elected committeeman; and
- Be registered to vote in the county in which the election judge serves e.g. a voter in suburban Cook County may serve as an election judge either in the suburbs or in Chicago
- Complete a short election judge training session provided by the election authority
See your state’s specific requirements at:
If you are eligible based on your state’s requirements, you can find contact information for your state and local election offices at Work Elections, the National Association of Secretaries of State, or this State Election Authorities list.
Another common duty of poll workers is overseeing poll watchers. Poll watchers monitor election procedures to ensure compliance with the law. The ultimate goal is to hold fair elections that report accurate election results. Poll watchers differ from election officials in that they have no legal authority in the polling location and are strictly prohibited from touching any ballots or other voting equipment. Rather, they are election observers who report any irregularities at the polling place, thus helping to ensure free and fair conduct of elections. Many times, their mere presence is enough to deter fraud. Reaching a legitimate, fair outcome requires following the law for every vote cast.
Poll watchers are responsible for:
- Observing the ballot box prior to voting, ensuring it is empty and ensuring machines start at zero
- Observing election officials as they carry out their activities during election day
- Observing that provisional ballots are given when required, and that voted provisional ballots are placed in the secure receptacle provided for this purpose and not fed into the ballot optical scan machine with regular ballots
- Observing counting procedures, including provisional votes and tallying ballots
- Keeping detailed records of what goes on in the polling place
- Observing the timely closing of the polling place
- Observing election officials properly securing blank ballots, processing defective or damaged ballots, closing the electronic logbook, and transmitting votes
- Calling to the attention (politely) of the election judges any incorrect voting procedure or apparent violation by anyone in the polling place
There are also rolls for poll watchers outside of designated polling locations. Nursing homes are an important location for poll watchers to be on election day. If you witness fraud while poll watching at a nursing home:
- Politely call the election official’s attention to the issue. If the fraud has already occurred, the goal would be to avert fraud from happening again.
- Call the campaign or political party for whom you are a poll watcher; they may have someone nearby who can help, or can bring the issue to an election authority.
- Call the election authority to report the possible fraud.
- Detail in writing the incident with as much detail as possible, including the date and time. An election judge’s name will be on his or her name badge, along with his or her party. If the election judge has the name badge facing inward – so you can’t read it, jot down a physical description and ask for his/her name at the end of voting. If he or she refuses to provide his or her name, indicate that refusal in your notes.
The qualifications of poll watchers vary somewhat from state to state. Some states do not require poll watchers to be residents of the state; others require poll watchers to be registered voters in the county in which they poll watch. See this list for more information on your state’s qualifications.
To become a poll watcher, contact the campaign, political party, or organization of your choice regarding your willingness to serve for all or part of a day. Contact your local political party or candidate of choice regarding your interest; they will be grateful and will guide you through the process. If you cannot locate a way to contact them, contact election authorities for your state.
The candidate or political party usually provides a short training (flexible to your schedule, most have many options and also offer one-on-one training). This is especially helpful for first-time poll watchers. True the Vote also offers training information and resources. You can also bring a friend to make the day more enjoyable. Many polling locations house multiple precincts; two friends can easily cover a few precincts this way, making a big impact.
In many races, close calls and simple counting mistakes are not the only troubles; when election fraud is considered, it is easy to see how important every vote and every poll watcher is to maintaining the integrity of an entire election.
You are doing a service to your community, state and country when you volunteer your time in making elections free and fair. Find a friend and sign up. It’s a great way to interact with voters and the voting process and in some cases can literally impact the outcome of an election by reducing fraud and ensuring everyone eligible has the opportunity to vote. And your first hand involvement with the electoral process will set an example to others around you and possibly inspire their participation. This only helps grow the numbers of active and involved citizens and ensure free and fair elections as envisioned by our Founders and enshrined in our Constitution.
Are you or is someone you know voting for the first time in an upcoming election? Get started with The Policy Circle’s First-Time Voter Guide.
Skimm – a nonpartisan initiative focused on getting their audience (predominantly millennial women) the information and tools they need to vote, no matter how, where, or when they do it. In one of the most complicated elections in history, they Skimm’d the voting process by creating a one-stop resource hub to get registered, navigate your states voting rules, cast a ballot and get informed.
Want to know more about the essential roll of poll workers? Part 1 of The Policy Circle’s Election Series explains what it’s like and how to get involved (45 min):