Washington Week

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A Guide to Voting

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows

With less than 50 days to go until Election Day, voters across the country will soon head to the ballot box. But some may cast their votes sooner than November 8. And others may not even go to a physical ballot box. As states embrace a diversifying array of voting methods, here is a step-by-step guide on how to cast ballots on--or before--Election Day:

Step one: Register to vote.

Before considering how to vote, all Americans wanting to have a say in picking the president, their state reps, or the next dog mayor must register to vote. While many states require voters to submit their registration weeks before an election, nine states and the District of Columbia allow you to register in person on Election Day.

Colorado is one of those nine states and is going decidedly high tech with their voter registration. Voters with smart phones can text “Colorado” or “CO” to 28683 (“2Vote”), and they will be redirected to the secretary of state’s website with information on changing their political party, viewing a sample ballot or checking the status of their early voting ballot.

The state has placed an emphasis on registering all citizens, even reaching out to homeless voters before November’s election. And the emphasis is needed, given that 6 million Americans across the country did not vote in 2008 because they were not properly registered.

An increasing number of states are trying to do away with that problem by instituting automatic registration. Until every state does, registration deadlines will remain on voters’ calendars.

Not sure when your state’s deadline is? Here’s the link to make sure you register in time.

Step two: View your ballot.

Ballots usually become available about 45 days before Election Day and can be viewed on individual states’ websites. The availability of the ballot also coincides with the earliest voting. North Carolina began to send out absentee ballots on September 9. By the end of the month, ballots will begin to be mailed in nearly two dozen other states. 

Step three: Vote early in person.

Early voting laws vary by state and even by county, but Minnesota and a handful of states allow first ballots for the November race to be cast as early as September 23, three days before the first presidential debate even occurs.

More than two-thirds of states offer some form of early voting, which allows voters to visit an election official’s office, or even another satellite voting location, and submit a vote without an excuse as to why they cannot vote on Election Day.

In 2012, about a quarter of the votes cast were cast by early ballots; 32,311,399 Americans submitted ballots before Election Day. And the popularity of early voting is only growing. It is estimated that a third of votes may be cast early in this year’s election as states continue to increase early voting opportunities. This will allow citizens the convenience of voting on their own schedules and the satisfaction of putting the election season behind them.

Not voting early in person? Continue to step four.

Step four: Send your ballot early by mail.

Want to vote early without having to visit a polling location? Many Americans choose to send in their ballots by mail. In three states (Oregon, Washington and Colorado), voters don’t even have a choice, as all elections are conducted entirely by mail.

To send in a vote in any other state, citizens must register for an absentee ballot. 27 states and the District of Columbia even allow voters to request such a ballot with no excuse.

In Colorado, one of the states where citizens can vote absentee without an excuse, 71.4 percent of all who voted in the 2012 presidential election did so through an absentee ballot.

Every year, more and more Americans choose to vote by mail and many states are making it easier to do so. In some states, such as North Carolina, voters are mailed their absentee ballots and can vote up to 60 days before Election Day. And sixteen states now allow permanent absentee voting, where voters can receive absentee ballots for all future elections.

Twenty-two percent of citizens voted by mail in the 2012 presidential elections. Approximately 273,408 of these votes came from beyond borders, whether a citizen was living overseas or in the military. This is a rather sorry statistic, though, as an estimation of 4 million Americans lived abroad at the time. Perhaps these citizens were dissuaded by the lack of an “I voted” sticker.

Not voting early by mail? Continue to step five.

Step five: Vote on Election Day.

Maybe you still want the satisfaction of going to your polling place and checking that box on Election Day. You’re not alone. Despite the wide array of alternatives, most voters will still end up waiting in line on November 8 to cast their ballots. And some will wait longer than others.

According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, 2012 general election voters in Florida, Maryland and South Carolina were hit hard by delays at their polling locations. Florida voters experienced a “systemic, statewide problem” that caused an average wait time of nearly an hour across 17 counties.

The findings from Maryland and South Carolina were more troubling. While some voters experienced no delay whatsoever, specific counties reported wait times of up to three hours in Maryland and nearly five hours in South Carolina.

And the Brennan Center drew a correlation between specific counties’ delays and their higher minority populations: “For example, in South Carolina, the 10 precincts with the longest waits had, on average, more than twice the percentage of black registered voters (64 percent) than the statewide average (27 percent).”

Such concerning discrepancies could make early voting all the more appealing.

Step six: Wait for results.

Regardless of how they voted, all voters will endure the “wait-and-see” period before results begin to roll in. In the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, this wait lasted for weeks, as the Supreme Court deliberated over the very close and very contentious Florida results.

Florida’s confusion and disorganization spurred many states to reexamine their ballot practices, which led to some of the early voting practices today. But unfortunately even early voting cannot guarantee a fast result. All American counties are forbidden from counting a single ballot until polls close, so as not to affect the end result with early tallies.

So we will all have to wait until November 8 to know if it will be President Trump or President Clinton in the White House.