Voting: A Beginner's Guide
When voters cast ballots for the first time, they take part in one of the cherished hallmarks of democracy. In exercising our right to vote, we are making critical decisions that guide the direction the country will follow. We decide who we want to lead us and what issues we think are important.
It can be exciting to know that you will be participating in democracy. But it can also be intimidating — especially in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic is dramatically altering the mechanics of voting. We're primarily talking about much greater availability of absentee voting by mail here. But before we drill further into absentee voting, let's look at a few basic questions first-time voters might have.
What Is the First Step to Voting in a General Election?
In order to vote in the General Election, you need to be at least 18 years old. Some states allow you to vote in primary elections (more on that below) at age 17 if you'll be 18 by Nov. 3.
In order to vote, you need to be registered to vote. If you need to do that or are unsure, this page on registration should provide answers. As of March 30, 2020, a total of 39 states plus the District of Columbia provided online registration.
If you are not registered on Election Day, 21 states plus the District of Columbia allow you to register that day at polling sites. Generally, you will need to have a valid ID and proof of residency (rental agreement, utility bill, etc.).
Then, once you're registered, you can vote! Now that you're empowered to have a hand in democratic decision-making, you'll want to make the most informed choices possible when you cast your ballot.
Keep in mind that you may have far more decisions to make than you currently imagine. You might be focused on your presidential vote, but there are many other important elections at stake on your ballot at the federal, state, and local levels. Your state may also have ballot questions that have been authorized as the result of citizen signature drives.
One great source for information on what you can expect to see on your ballot is Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan election information organization. Ballotpedia provides an interactive map that will allow you to obtain information by clicking your state.
Meanwhile, remember the mention of primary elections above? If you want to be fully engaged in elections, all states have primary elections as well to determine which candidates get onto the ballot for the General Election. Many primaries were postponed by coronavirus lockdowns this year, and 15 are now scheduled for after Aug. 1.
One thing to keep in mind about primaries: There are two types, open and closed. Open primaries mean that you don't have to declare a party affiliation; closed primaries are open only to people who have registered with that party.
Previously, most votes were cast at polling places on Election Day. This year, however, states have greatly expanded voting alternatives so that people don't need to face health risks with in-person voting.
Mostly, the new option available to most voters is absentee voting by mail. As of July 22, a total of 35 states had expanded the availability of absentee voting. The rules vary from state to state — the best way to find out what's going on in your state is to visit your secretary of state's home page.
The Gen-Z Vote
For "Generation Z," those born after 1996, this will be the first election when they can vote.
This bloc of first-timers is huge: 24 million people, or one in 10 eligible voters. Various studies have found "Zoomers" to be highly engaged in election issues, but whether that engagement will result in a high voter turnout remains to be seen — young people historically vote at low levels.
In June, The Hill reported on a study of Gen-Z'ers, finding that this group is generally well aware of the mechanics of registration, obtaining absentee ballots, etc. At the same time, respondents reported a lack of excitement about the candidates themselves. But will the pandemic and Gen-Z involvement in street protests over police reform change their minds? We may know in November.