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 walks you through the components of being an active voter or volunteer: how to register, research a candidate, develop an assessment scorecard, and get involved by becoming a volunteer.

Audio Brief

View the Executive Summary for this brief.


Listen to The Trust Your Voice 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 are  registered? explains how to check (2 min):

Check your registration at:

If you are not registered, there are lots of resources to help:

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires states provide individuals the opportunity to register to vote when  they apply or renew a driver’s license. These states allow individuals under 18 years of age to pre-register to vote.

Where to Go

On Election Day, go to your designated polling location to cast your ballot. Polling locations are determined 2-4 weeks before polls open. You can also contact your state’s election authority with questions.

If you know you cannot vote in person on election day, you can:

Be aware of application deadlines and that some states are very particular on their rules for first-time and in-person voters. The National Conference of State Legislatures breaks this down.

What to Bring

Almost every state requires voters to present a form of identification to vote. First-time voters are required to provide identification before casting a ballot. The Help America Vote Act “mandates 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.”

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 looks like is also helpful. 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 may look like and who is on it. This gives 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 ask what races are taking place that could impact your city or state. Check out Ballotpedia’s Elections Calendar to see both local and statewide elections happenings.

Once you know who is on your ballot and the positions they seek, you cast an informed vote. You can research a candidate’s voting records, previous government service, and endorsements they have received. A quick news search can reveal articles about the candidates from various outlets. To see if the news source delivers a biased perspective on a candidate (or not), try AllSides focuses on delivering news from both sides of the political spectrum to offer more balance in media. 

Another method is to review 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 questions, email the candidate to get a better sense of who they are and where they stand on major issues:

  • Why are you running for [position]?
  • What do you believe is the best system for people to create a better  future for themselves and their families?
  • 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 do you plan to work with colleagues you disagree with?

Ask prospective candidates about their stances on specific issues that interest you. Most issues have a national organization that 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, creating a scorecard to record your findings can be helpful. 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)

Ballot Measures and Initiatives

In addition to knowing who is 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, the petition 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  2022 potential ballot measures to learn about measures on your ballot.

Important Roles at the Polls

Poll Workers

In addition to voting, the most effective way you can participate in elections is by serving as a poll worker, also called election official or election judge. Serving at a polling location can help ensure election rules are followed,  the integrity of the results, and that every eligible voter gets an opportunity to vote. Read more in The Policy Circle’s Election Processes and Innovations.

Poll workers receive specific  training for their county or municipality; and generally, 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
  • 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:

Poll Watchers

Another common duty of poll workers is to oversee 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 irregularities at the polling place, thus helping to ensure the 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.

Because poll watchers lack legal authority, they can work with interest groups to ensure fairness. Political parties, candidates, and proponents of ballot initiatives can appoint partisan poll watchers, and nonpartisan organizations can appoint nonpartisan poll watchers to observe elections.

Poll watchers are responsible to:

  • Observe the ballot box prior to voting to ensure it is empty and the machine start at zero
  • Observe election officials as they carry out activities during election day
  • Observe provisional ballots are given when required, and 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
  • Observe counting procedures including provisional votes and tallying ballots
  • Keep detailed records of what goes on in the polling place
  • Observe the timely closing of the polling place
  • Observe election officials properly secure blank ballots, process defective or damaged ballots, close the electronic logbook, and transmit votes
  • Call to the attention of the election judges any incorrect voting procedure or apparent violation by anyone in the polling place

There are also roles for poll watchers outside of designated polling locations such as nursing homes. Nursing homes are an important location for poll watchers to be on election day. 

The qualifications of poll watchers vary somewhat from state to state. Some states do not require poll watchers to be residents of the state while others require poll watchers to be registered voters in the county where they intend to poll. 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 and guide you through the process. Try to contact the 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. 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.

Additional Resources

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. 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 role of poll workers? Part 1 of The Policy Circle’s Election Series explains what it’s like and how to get involved (45 min):