How to Vote: 7 Simple Steps for Ballot Beginners

Election rights, rules, and regulations for first-time voters in the U.S.

Last Updated: 03/29/2020

With the 2020 presidential election right around the corner, millions of newly eligible voters across the country are preparing to cast their ballot for the very first time. As one of the most important groups to turn up on Election Day, first-time voters make up 21% of the voting population in the U.S. However, these voting newcomers are also the group least likely to register to vote and to cast their ballot come election time.

There are many things to figure out if it’s your first-time voting, including your eligibility, timing, logistics, candidates, and more. Maybe you’re turning 18 and you’re not sure where to start, or maybe you’re eager to get involved in the electoral process. From researching candidates and picking your party to registering and casting your ballot, we’ve got you covered. Here’s what you need to know to exercise your right to vote.

Seven Steps to Casting Your Ballot

Being a first-time voter can feel intimidating as you navigate through new processes and learn the various steps to cast your vote. Luckily, with a few good resources and some guidance, you can feel confident walking into your polling station for the first time. Below are seven simple steps to follow to make your vote count.

Step 1

Register to Vote

Before casting your ballot, you need to register. Each state sets its own requirements and deadlines, with some allowing you to register on Election Day, and others requiring registration in advance. Here are the three most common registration options:

In-Person

Some states allow you to register while at the DMV or by participating in a voter registration event. National Voter Registration Day provides a list of upcoming events you can search by zip code.

Online

38 states and Washington D.C. currently allow residents to register online by filing out a form on your state’s official website. Nonprofits such as RocktheVote can also help in this process.

By Mail

If your state requires registration via mail, visit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and print out a National Mail Voter Registration Form.

Step 2

Choose Your Party Affiliation

Depending on your state, you may have the opportunity to participate in an open or closed primary. Open primaries allow you to vote without affiliating with a political party while closed require you to identify your political allegiance. Political parties are groups of people who share the same views about how the government should be run and what it should do. These parties work together to win elections. Before joining a political party, let’s get to know the core tenets of each.

Democratic Party

The Democratic Party represents a spectrum of ideologies ranging from conservative to progressive thought. Regardless of where a Democrat falls on this spectrum, they typically believe in limiting excessive corporate profit, supporting economic opportunity in equitable ways, social safety nets, higher tax rates for the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, a public healthcare option, improving educational access, protecting the environment, investing in renewable energy, supporting bodily autonomy, championing multiculturalism, and ensuring civil rights for all, regardless of how they identify. Democrats typically believe in responsible gun ownership and generally take an anti-interventionist stance in terms of war but support providing humanitarian aid.

Republican Party

According to the party’s platform, Republicans believe that the federal government should not play a big role in the daily lives of the American people and favor smaller state and local government bodies. When it comes to healthcare, Republicans believe in a patient-centered system which is based on free markets, fostering competition and driving down healthcare costs. The party stands behind a traditional definition of marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman and generally do not support gay marriage. When it comes to immigration, the Republican Party believes in laws and reform that address the needs of national security and the party works to uphold the right of the individual to both keep and bear arms. 

Libertarian Party

Above all, libertarians value political freedom and autonomy for every individual. They are skeptical of attempts by any governmental entity to take away the freedom of choice, regardless of the given topic. As such, libertarians typically do not take stances on topics such as abortion, gun rights, or other domestic issues; instead they emphasize the use of individual judgement in making a decision. In terms of existing governmental systems, libertarians tend to fall on a spectrum. Some believe major governmental entities should be dismantled while others are only against the creation of new systems.

Green Party

The Green Party recognizes 10 key values that are central to the party platform. These include grassroots democracy, social justice and equal opportunity, ecological wisdom, non-violence, decentralization, community-based economics, feminism and gender equity, respect for diversity, personal and global responsibility, and future focus and sustainability. The party heavily supports the idea of world peace and believes each of these tenets are essential to achieving that goal. The Green Party is an international party, with representation in approximately 90 countries.

Independents

While not so much a party as a way of self-identifying, independent voters do not align themselves with any particular political group. Instead they look at the platforms of individual candidates and vote based on how their platforms mesh with personal beliefs about various topics. An independent voter may vote for candidates from each of the parties listed above if they feel that candidate best represents their views. In political jargon, these individuals are sometimes known as swing voters.

Step 3

Research the Candidates

Just because you identify with a particular party, candidates within that party often run on nuanced platforms. Before throwing your support behind a candidate based simply on their affiliation, take time to understand their qualifications, voting record, and positions.

Step 4

Understand the Issues

After you have a good handle on political party platforms and the candidates running, it’s time to learn about the issues at stake during a particular election. Whether voting for a local councilperson or the U.S. President, educate yourself about how the results of the election can affect issues such as the economy, civil rights, taxation, immigration, and individual liberties. When looking up information, remember that not all news sources are created equally. We look at which sources should be trusted when conducting research.

Reliable Sources

  • Established Journals
  • Publications with data citations
  • Mainline News Outlets

Unreliable Sources

  • Social Media
  • Partisan News Networks
  • Editorials/Blogs
  • Citizen Journalists
Step 5

Check State-Specific Right & Rules

Each of state sets its own requirements for first-time voter registration. The majority of states require applicants to provide some type of photo identification and/or government document that identifies citizenship status. Some states also require documentation of your current address, so make sure to check what your state’s requirements are. Check out Vote.org to see a list of voting rules by state.

Step 6
Find Your Polling Place

Find Your Polling Place

Your polling location is determined based on your address, meaning you must go to a specific place to cast your vote. If you’re unsure where your assigned polling place is, contact your local election office or use websites such as Get to the Polls or the USA.gov search tool.

Step 7

Cast Your Ballot

When you arrive at your polling place, there are several different types of voting you’ll encounter. Some localities still use paper ballots while others have moved to touch-screen voting machines. Tutorials are available if you feel unsure of how to use the provided method. Be sure to check the hours of your polling location and remember that as long as you are in line prior to the polls closing, election officials must let you vote—regardless of how long it takes before your turn.

First-Time Voter Populations

First-time voters comprise a diverse group of people across the lifespan who may identify as ethnic and/or religious minorities, veterans, individuals with disabilities, or women. In 2020, first-time voters have the opportunity to usher in a wave of demographic transformation. Millions of Generation Z Americans, those born after 1996, will be able to vote for the first time, marking an important change. No matter how you identify as a first-time voter, the following sections provide information on how you can connect with others about the issues important to you.

Students

Both traditional and non-traditional high school and college students comprise this group.

Why Their Vote Matters

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 18.4 million Americans are currently enrolled in college, not to mention high school students aged 18 or over who are eligible to vote. This population represents a significant voting bloc.

LGBTQIA+

Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, or elsewhere on the gender spectrum make up this group of voters.

Why Their Vote Matters

According to a poll conducted by Gallup, approximately 4.5% of the U.S. population identified as LGBT as of 2018 — up from 3.5% in 2012. Members of this community bring unique and important perspectives to the table and deserve to have their voices heard.

Military

Active or reserve members of the military, combined with veterans, comprise this bloc of voters.

Why Their Vote Matters

2016 data from The Pew Research Center and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that veterans alone make up 20.4 million individuals, not to mention those on active duty.

Minorities

Minority and indigenous populations recognized by the U.S. Census include Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, Asian American, Native American, Native Hawai’ian/Pacific Islander, and Arab/Middle Eastern Americans.

Why Their Vote Matters

Data from Minority Rights notes that various minority populations make up nearly 118 million Americans, making this one of the largest special interest voting blocs in the country.

Religious Groups

Religious groups comprise individuals who believe in some type of higher power, regardless of their faith tradition.

Why Their Vote Matters

Approximately 70.6% of Americans identify as Christian while an additional 5.9% are members of non-Christian faiths according to the Pew Research Forum. Evangelical Christians tend to lean conservative while other sects lean more liberal, making this population an important one for politicians to court.

Voters with Disabilities

This population may have behavioral, cognitive, developmental, physical, or other types of disabilities.

Why Their Vote Matters

One in five Americans – or nearly 20% – have some type of disability. These voters look for candidates who can speak knowledgeably and compassionately about making the world a more accessible place.

Women

Americans who identify as female.

Why Their Vote Matters

As of 2017, more women than men lived in the United States. Approximately 166 million women live in the country, as compared to 159 million men. Women also tend to vote more frequently than men, making them an important voting group.

Voting Abroad

Nearly nine million Americans currently live outside the U.S. for one reason or another, making it imperative that the federal government make voting an easy process while abroad. We look at two common ways of voting for expats below.

Early Voting

If you know you will be traveling when voting day comes around, you can contact your local election commission to learn if you qualify for early voting or voting by mail. Time frames for early voting vary by state, so take time to make a plan for voting before you head out of town.

USA.gov Early Voting

This governmental website provides official information and additional links to information on how to vote early in your state.

Absentee Voting

If you plan to be out of the country for an extended time or currently live abroad, you can qualify for absentee voting in the state you resided prior to going overseas. This involves mailing in a ballot before Election Day.

Absentee Voting Information

The Federal Voting Assistance Program offers guidance on how to register as an absentee voter and receive a ballot for upcoming elections.

Ballot Breakdown: Federal & State Election Glossary

Even though the Presidential Election takes up a lot of space in the news, many other opportunities exist for you to make your voice heard in local, state, provincial, and federal elections. If you want to sound like a pro during election season, familiarize yourself with these common terms.

Caucus

Caucuses are seen as the election season kicks-off and they are first chance for voters to express their opinions about who should lead their party when it comes time for the election. Today, only six states still use the caucus system while the others participate in primary elections. Regardless of what your state uses, it’s important to remember that they provide the same outcome of nominating a single leader for the upcoming general election. Caucuses have been in the news a lot lately with the impending 2020 election. If you read about voters in Iowa caucusing for their preferred candidate, this means they show up at their local precinct on the appointed day to register their support for a specific candidate. This is not the same as voting and caucus participants will still need to vote again in the general election.

Primary Election

Primaries function similar to a caucus but the process is slightly more formal. While caucusing often involves standing in a group with other individuals who support your candidate, a primary election involves casting an actual vote using a paper ballot or digital voting machine. This information is collated by election officials who then report which candidate got the highest number of votes. This process helps eliminate non-viable candidates and provides voters with fewer options on Election Day.

Convention

Political conventions happen at local, state, provincial, and national levels. Their purpose is to bring together party leaders and delegates to decide which candidate should receive the nomination. In the case of conventions held during presidential election years, delegates from all 50 states come together to nominate a candidate based on how their state voted in the caucus or primary election. Once the work is done, conventions largely act as political rallies to hype supporters and voters for the general election. Party leaders typically speak, as does the selected nominee.

General Election

After all of the caucuses, primaries, and conventions are over, the general election is held. In presidential election years, primaries are typically held between February and May with conferences held in June or July. The general election always takes place on the second Tuesday of November and pits the chosen candidate from representing political parties (e.g., Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians) against one another. Registered American voters go to the polls, select their chosen candidate, and cast their vote.

Mid-Term Election

While the presidency is the most high-profile election in the U.S., plenty of other opportunities to vote occur both during the general and mid-term elections. The mid-terms take place two years after each general election and provide voters the opportunity to register their support for senators, representatives, governors, mayors, and many other partisan offices. Mid-terms often have a much lower turnout than the general election, but are just as important in terms of electing individuals to represent you whose views reflect your own.

Referendum

Unlike elections which focus on voting for a political candidate, referendums give voters the opportunity to approve or reject a new law or a proposed repeal of an existing law. Some states mandate referendum approval for specific topics, such as spending bills or constitutional amendments. One referendum that gained significant attention during the previous (2018) election was Florida’s Amendment 4, also known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. The residents of Florida decided to approve this amendment, restoring the voting rights to more than 1.5 million Floridians who served their time.

Student Voting FAQ

First-time voters often have lots of questions about the process. Luckily for all you first-timers out there, we’re here to answer some of the most common ones.

Q: What is early voting?

A. Early voting is a process that allows registered voters to cast their ballot prior to the actual election day. Individuals who choose to use this method do not need a reason for voting early, but they must do so in person at an approved polling site.

Q: How do I vote if I’m studying abroad?

A. Learners engaged in study abroad programs during an election can file an absentee ballot and cast their vote while overseas. Check with your local election commission before traveling to learn about specific requirements and timelines.

Q: Where do I vote if I’m attending college out-of-state?

A. Students attending a school outside their original place of residence can either apply to vote absentee or register to vote in their current place of residence. Factors affecting this decision may include which state they feel their vote will have more of an impact and where they plan to live after graduating.

Q: Will where I register to vote affect my in- or out-of-state tuition status?

A. If you receive scholarships or grants from state-specific organizations, changing your voter registry could potentially affect these awards. If unsure, contact your university’s department of financial aid and ask about specific awards.

Q: Where do I go to vote?

A. The location of your local polling place is determined when you register to vote. If you are unsure of the location or misplaced your card detailing this information, you can use the USA.gov website to find your state or local election office for guidance.

Q: Can I miss class or work to go vote?

A. Simply put, it depends on your state. As of 2018, 30 states allowed workers to take time off though some do not provide pay for the time you are gone. Other states allow you to vote by mail. Speak with your supervisor and/or professors well in advance of Election Day and make it clear that you want to exercise your constitutional right.

Q: What if I observe something suspicious on Election Day?

A. Most voters experience relatively little excitement or intrigue at their polling place, but it’s important to know your rights in case you notice something that doesn’t seem quite right. The Brennan Center provides a helpful guide, but you can also call 866-OUR-VOTE for free and speak to a trained legal volunteer about specific issues.

Student Voter Resources

If you want to learn more about first-time voting, check out a few of the trusted resources highlighted in this section.