Voting 101

A Comprehensive-ish Guide to Election 2020

We are just four weeks out from the November 2020 election. Whether you’re a first-time voter or a seasoned pro, voting is an involved process. You have to:

  • research who and what is on your ballot
  • make sure your registration is up to date by the deadline
  • know where your polling place or ballot drop off location is
  • know when and if you can vote early, if you’re voting in-person

Voting shouldn’t be difficult. That’s why we’ve crafted this voting 101 guide to demystify the voting process and help you come up with a voting plan. And be sure to bookmark our voting 101 resource page.

Why Vote?

IT’S ABOUT POWER

Voting is, at its core, about deciding who has power in this country, across all levels of our government. 

Elected officials have the power to affect any and all causes you may care about: the climate crisis, systemic racism, gender equality, access to healthcare, equitable education, economic security — anything and everything related to your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

VOTING AS A PRIVILEGE: A NOTE ABOUT DISENFRANCHISEMENT

From the writing of the Constitution, voting was a right that was not afforded to everyone. Even after multiple constitutional amendments and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there are voices forcibly excluded from the democratic process. 

Modern versions of literacy tests and poll taxes include gerrymandering, which is used strategically to dilute the power of votes in communities of color. Other voting restrictions like ID laws, complicated registration deadlines, and disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions** have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people.

Organizations such as Fair Fight are focused on ending voter suppression in Break Away’s home state of Georgia and beyond.

John Lewis quote

For those of us who do have access, we have a responsibility to consider not just the election’s impact on our lives, but what’s at stake for all communities.

What’s on the Ballot?

Every four years we vote for the next President of the United States. Among other reasons, that’s what makes the 2020 election cycle so well publicized.

But the president isn’t the only thing on the ballot this November. In addition to other federal representatives, state + local representatives will be elected and ballot measures will be decided. 

If it seems like national politics is too polarized to make a difference in (or you’re feeling apathetic because of the electoral college), find a state or local race or ballot initiative you’re passionate about. 

STATE + LOCAL ELECTIONS

While choosing the leader of the United States is a big deal, just as important are your state and local officials. Your day-to-day life is impacted by these folks more than by the president. 

US government structure

For instance, when the U.S. federal government decides to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, your mayor has the power to lead the charge on fighting the climate crisis. So if you want your city to be carbon-neutral or start a curbside composting program, give your mayor’s office a call.

State officials will redraw the voting districts next year using the data collected from the census. This process often involves partisan gerrymandering, where state representatives draw the map to benefit themselves and their party. Unfortunately, this is a common practice in both parties — unless we elect officials who oppose it (and hold them accountable to those promises). 

State and local races aren’t nearly as publicized as the presidential race. Be sure to do your own research on the candidates (more on that below). 

BALLOT INITIATIVES

Ballot initiatives (aka propositions, questions, referendums, amendments) are proposed legislation that is approved or rejected by voters. 

The language used to write a ballot initiative is often confusing. Read them carefully! You can also Google endorsements of the ballot initiatives to see what entities support or oppose each one.

RESEARCH WHO + WHAT IS ON YOUR BALLOT

click to find your state + local voting requirements

Voting tip: You can fill out a sample ballot ahead of time and take it with you when you vote in-person. No need to memorize every single thing!

So You’ve Decided to Vote. Now What?

CHECK YOUR VOTER REGISTRATION STATUS

Take 30 seconds and verify that you’re registered to vote.

2020 voter registration deadlines

Not registered? Changed addresses? Skipped out on voting in a previous election? Registering to vote takes two minutes!

Register to vote! 

ABSENTEE VS. MAIL-IN BALLOTS

States that automatically mail ballots to their registered voters: California, Colorado, D.C., Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Vermont.

There is a very, very low risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots (despite what the president claims). More likely is that you mail it back too late or your ballot gets rejected. Be sure to fill it out exactly as directed to help mediate any issues. Check with your county’s election office website to see if you can track your ballot.

Get Involved!

ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO VOTE

We’ve been saying for a while that education and advocacy is service. Whether individually or as a program, you can write letters to registered voters*** who are otherwise considered unlikely to vote and encourage them to do so.

BE A POLL WORKER

Poll workers tend to be older folks who, as you know, are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. A shortage of poll workers can lead to hours-long waiting periods, disarray, and closed polling locations. If you are able and it is safe for you to do so, we encourage you to sign up to be a poll worker**** in your county.

*While Supreme Court justices aren’t elected, you should still think about them as such. Whoever is elected into the executive branch at state or federal level is who gets to appoint these justices.
**If you or someone you know has been convicted of a felony and have served their sentence, they may be eligible to vote again.
***In an effort to free up USPS workers for official election mail, Vote Forward asks that folks mail their letters on October 17.
****Listen to this episode of 1A from NPR to learn more about how high school and college students are signing up en masse to be poll workers!