How and why to register to vote

What is the actual process to vote?

You hear so many people and advertisements telling you to vote, vote, vote. But if you’ve never done it before? How does it work? Some people don’t want to ask and acknowledge that it’s been a long time since they last voted, or that they’ve never done it at all. So you want to vote … what now?

Every state makes its own voting and election rules, including when and how to register. You have to be registered to vote, can’t just randomly show up anywhere and do it. Check with your state’s election office to get the most detailed and up-to-date information for where you live.

Register to Vote

In our digital age, this process is easier than ever. You can visit Vote.gov to register to vote. Depending on voter registration rules in your state, the site can help you:

  • Register online. This is available for 40 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Download the National Mail Voter Registration Form. You can fill it out directly on the screen and print the completed form.  Or, you can print the blank form and fill it out by hand. Make sure you remember to sign the form before you mail it to the location listed for your state.
  • Find guidance for states and territories with different registration procedures.

You can register in person with your state or local election office. You may also be able to register at one of these nearby public facilities. Check with the actual location first.

  • The department of motor vehicles for your state.
  • Armed forces recruitment centers.
  • State and county public assistance offices such as SNAP/food stamps and WIC

Overseas and Military Voters

Just because you’re not living at home in the U. S. doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to vote. And I can’t think of anybody who has more of a right to vote and be heard than the men and women of our armed forces! The Federal Voting Assistance Program lets you register to vote, and to equest an absentee ballot if you’re a

  • U.S. citizen living outside the U.S.
  • Service member stationed overseas
  • Spouse or eligible family member of a service member stationed overseas

Voters with disabilities

Being disabled does not mean you lose your right to vote. At another time I will detail ways in which the disabled can cast a ballot. Just know that you have a right to have an absentee ballot mailed to you. You can also inquire about voter accommodations for the disabled, in case you need a change of polling location to cast your vote in person.

Confirm Your Voter Registration Status

Computer systems do get messed up at times. Why take a chance on going in-person to vote and finding out that you aren’t registered anymore?  To confirm that you’re registered to vote in the upcoming election, just check your voter registration status, so you can fix it if there’s any problem.

When you do that, you’ll also be able to verify your polling location.  (I remember voting at a Ford dealership for many years, which I always thought was pretty funny).

You can find out what political party you’re registered with, if you specified one.  This matters when it’s time to vote in primaries when candidates are chosen. I have at different times been registered for each of the main political parties.

Update or Change Your Voter Registration

Certain circumstances do require that you update your voter registration information. You’ll need to do that if you:

  • Move within your state because you will need to be assigned to a new polling location.
  • Change your name – because after all, you have to be identifiable as you.
  • Want to change your political party affiliation – I changed my status to Independent quite a while ago, yet I mysteriously find myself listed with a particular party designation again sometimes.
  • If you permanently move to another state, you must register to vote in your new state.

Be sure to submit changes to your voter information before your state’s deadline to register to vote, which can be up to 30 days before the election.  It’s mid-September and the presidential election is November 5th. You don’t have much time but you do have enough time, so please make it a priority.

You can change your registration online, by mail, or by phone. Be ready to provide your state driver’s license number or state ID number and your Social Security number.

Make Changes Online

If your state has online voter registration, that may be the easiest way to make changes. If your state keeps track of political party preference, you will be able to change that too.

  1. Go to gov.
  2. Select your state and click “find out how to register.”
  3. Follow the link to your state’s election website to start your online registration or to find other ways to register.

Make Changes by Mail

  • Download, fill out, and mail in the National Mail Voter Registration Form. All states except New Hampshire, Wyoming, and North Dakota accept it.
  • If you can’t download this form and would like it or your state’s own registration form mailed to you, contact your state or local election office.
  • If you’re an overseas and/or military voter, don’t use the mail-in form. Go to the Federal Voting Assistance Program to change your voter information and request an absentee ballot.

Make Changes by Phone

Some states will accept changes over the phone. To find out if yours does allow this, check with a local election office.

How to Change Your Political Party Affiliation

Your political party affiliation is the party that you choose to associate with. Depending on your state, you may be asked your party affiliation when you register to vote.

  • You can change your party affiliation online, by mail, or over the phone using the methods for changing your voter registration information.
  • You don’t have to join a political party or reveal your party preference when you register to vote.
  • The party affiliation on your voter registration does not mean you must vote for just that party. You can always choose to vote for a candidate from any party in a general election, like a presidential, congressional, or mayoral election.
  • Your party affiliation is usually only important in primary elections. Many states have “closed” primaries. This means that you can only vote for your party’s candidates in its primary election.

Voter ID

Another time, I will go into the debate about whether or not voter ID requirements should exist, and if so, what form they should take. Right now I’m trying to just focus on facts and processes that do currently exist.

You don’t need to bring your voter registration card (or voter ID card with you on Election Day. You may need other identification though, since some states require a photo ID to vote.

Photo vs. non-photo identification:

Some states request or require voters to show an identification document that has a photo on it, such as a driver’s license, state-issued identification card, military ID, tribal ID, or other forms of ID. Other states accept non-photo identification such as a bank statement with name and address or another document that doesn’t have a photo. Under laws in effect in at the time of this writing in 2020, 18 states ask for a photo ID (When I researched this, it seems North Carolina’s photo ID requirement is on hold, based on an injunction from a federal judge). 17 states also accept non-photo IDs.

If a voter doesn’t show ID that is asked for by law, states provide alternatives. A state can be considered non-strict or strict in how this is handled.

  • Non-strict: At least some voters without acceptable identification have the option to cast a ballot that will be counted without the voter needing to do anything else.

For example, a voter lacking required ID may be asked to sign an affidavit of identity, or poll workers may be allowed to vouch for the identity of the voter. In some of the “non-strict” states, voters without required ID may vote on a provisional ballot. After Election Day ends, election officials will determine if the voter was eligible and registered, and whether the provisional ballot should be counted. The voter doesn’t have to do anything.

  • Strict: Voters lacking required ID must vote on a provisionalballot and must also take additional steps after Election Day for that ballot to be counted. For example, the voter may be required to return to an election office within a few days after the election and present an acceptable ID for the vote to be counted.

Please make sure you’re registered to vote! In a few weeks I’ll talk about the actual process of casting your vote.

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