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Your Vote, Your Future: A First-Time Voter Guide for College Students

Your Vote, Your Future: A First-Time Voter Guide for College Students

The power to create change starts with you. Your vote matters, and it can impact your future. Our first-time voter guide for college students equips you with the knowledge you need to confidently cast your first ballot and understand and participate in the democratic process.

As a current or prospective college student, you recognize the power of education to influence your future. But keep in mind: Your voice also holds immense power, a power you exercise through voting. A recent national poll highlights your potential impact, with 83% of respondents saying they believe young people have the power to change the country.

And there couldn’t be a better time to become more politically involved; every day, local, national, and global events remind us just how much voting matters. And data from recent elections show that young people are starting to vote in record numbers. 

So, whether you follow politics dutifully or are new to this process, it’s your time to join the ranks of Americans who exercise their basic right to vote and effect change. This guide was created as a primer to help you get started in the political process. Keep reading to learn tips and get answers to FAQs so you can make informed decisions when it’s time to cast your ballot.

First Time Voter? Start Here:

Being a newbie in any arena can be confusing at first. Luckily, voting is one of the most straightforward political processes of them all. If you want to become a registered voter, there are several steps you need to take to ensure you are prepared to participate in the next election. Failing to learn the steps may prevent you from voting altogether, and waiting until the last minute can leave you scrambling to find your polling location before it closes. So, take steps now to learn the process, beginning with this overview of how to vote. 

  • How to Register to Vote

    Not yet registered to vote — or need to update your voter registration? The process is simple and only includes a few steps:

    1. Visit Vote.gov: The first step is to visit the U.S. government’s official voting website and select your state for the specifics of registering in your state or territory. 
    2. Visit the local voting website: Once you select your state or territory, you will likely be redirected to your local voting site. Visit it to complete your registration. 
    3. Choose how to register: Lastly, you must register online, in person, or by mail. 
  • Where to Vote Locally 

    Now that you’ve registered to vote, you must find out where to vote locally. Although this information is typically mailed to voters, there’s a chance you’ll mistake your notice for junk mail or otherwise miss it. Luckily, finding out where you’re supposed to vote is relatively easy. One of the quickest, easiest ways to find where to vote locally is to utilize this national aggregator of state polling places. Once on the site, you select your state and enter your name, county, date of birth, and zip code to determine where you should vote. 

  • Mail-in Ballots 

    On the other hand, if you can’t visit your polling location in person or would prefer to vote early, mail-in ballots are your best bet. All registered voters can request a mail-in ballot for any reason. However, unlike absentee ballots, mail-in ballots are only for those who will be in their state of residence when voting. To get a general mail-in ballot, you simply need to request one online, by mail, or by fax by the designated cut-off date. Contact your local Board of Elections for more information. 

  • Absentee Ballots

    On the other hand, if you are a student attending out-of-state college and your permanent residence is in another state, you may have to register in your home state and vote by absentee ballot. To get one, you can visit the National Association of Secretaries of State. From there, you must choose your state from the drop-down menu to view the qualifications and rules for applying for an absentee ballot in your state. You can also download the application in English or Spanish to begin the process. Once you’ve received the ballot, you’ll fill it out and mail it back in the Security Envelope by the specified deadline. 

Preparing to Vote 

Too many new voters make the mistake of believing once they have registered to vote, their job is done. However, if you plan to be a responsible voter, this is where the real work begins. To vote effectively, you will need to learn more about your candidates and the issues on the ballot. Doing this will make it much easier to decide which candidates and causes you are for and against. Once you have made those determinations, you will officially be ready to rock the vote! 

  • Research the Candidates

    Before you can vote for anyone, you need to do your research. The political realm is one of the most confusing, and if you don’t conduct thorough research, you may be misled into voting for a candidate who may be detrimental to your political goals and ideals. By researching candidates online, reading their bios and mission statements, diving into social media and news stories, and having an honest political dialogue with people whose opinions you respect, you can learn everything you need to know about the candidates to make an informed decision. Remember to vote in national as well as local elections, as your local votes impact where you live. 

  • Read Through the Issues on the Ballot

    In addition to electing public officers, you will also be given the opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” on issues facing your district or state. These are important to pay attention to because they can directly impact the day-to-day experience of you and your neighbors. Nevertheless, many people never truly learn about the various issues on the ballot, instead making the mistake of asking others or watching a couple of news segments rather than researching the issue for themselves. Questions are almost always accompanied by official analyses and fiscal impact statements, as well as arguments for and against passage. Spend ample time with these explanations and learn about these local issues to spare yourself needless voter’s remorse later. 

  • Decide How You Will Vote

    Voting is simple, but you must choose the best method to ensure your vote is counted. For instance, many people choose early voting, which means they can vote at designated polling places before the actual election date. This is an ideal option for anyone who hates lines or otherwise has a busy schedule that may prevent them from voting on election day. On the other hand, if you don’t want to vote early, you can visit your polling place during the designated hours on election day. Finally, if none of these options works for you, you should do a mail-in ballot. This means you mail your ballot to a designated location by a specified date to ensure your vote is counted. 

  • Cast Your Ballot

    No matter how you decide to vote, do it right! This includes making sure you have identification (many states require it) and properly completing and casting your ballot. To do so, be sure to visit your polling place when you have ample time. Because there are never any guarantees regarding lines, you should vote when you have a couple of hours to spare, just in case. Moreover, make sure that you are paying attention to the ballot form and following the instructions. For example, you may find that some categories require multiple selections, while others require only one. Also, make sure that you fill in each bubble entirely and check the back of the ballot sheet, as they are sometimes double-sided. 

FAQs about the Voting Process 

While the voting process is typically straightforward, some variables can complicate the process. But taking the time to learn about them now can save you lots of stress later. With that in mind, here are some of the most commonly asked questions about voting. 

  • Q 1. If I have a disability, are there accommodations that can be made for me?

    Because voting is a basic human right for all eligible Americans, polling places are required by federal law to accommodate people with disabilities. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they must have full access and reasonable accommodations allowing them to vote. Some examples of reasonable accommodations at polling locations include:

    • Making enough space for service animals. 
    • Providing chairs for those who can’t stand or moving them to the front of the line. 
    • “Curbside” voting.
    • Helping fill out ballots. 
  • Q 2. If I don’t have an ID, can I still vote?

    Whether you need to bring a form of identification to vote depends on where you live. Currently, 35 states require voters to present a valid ID to vote. However, some states have strict requirements, while others have non-strict requirements. If you live in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, or Kansas, bringing an ID is mandatory. Otherwise, there are certain loopholes and exceptions in non-strict states, and IDs are not required in the remaining ones. 

  • Q 3. What if I am in the military or live overseas?

    If you are in the military or live overseas, you can vote via absentee ballot, which you’ll need to request ahead of time by downloading the application to begin the process. To make sure your vote is counted, be sure to properly complete the form and mail it back in the security envelope by the specified deadline, paying special attention to any instruction. Some states, for example, require you to place your ballot in a supplied secrecy sleeve, and your ballot may not be counted if you don’t follow this important step.

  • Q 4. What if I don’t read or write fluent English?

    Thanks to a section that was added to the Voting Rights Act in 1975, you don’t necessarily have to speak fluent English to vote. The legislation applies to states or counties in which over 5% of the population is not fluent in English, or over 10,000 eligible voters speak limited English, and the rate of voting for those with language barriers is higher than the national average. In these jurisdictions, you can request a translated ballot or supporting materials; according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “covered language minorities are limited to American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Spanish-heritage citizens — the groups that Congress found to have faced barriers in the political process.”

  • Q 5. What do I do if someone is interfering with my right to vote?

    Voter intimidation is described as intimidating, threatening, coercing, or otherwise interfering with someone’s right to vote. The U.S. Justice Department recommends that complaints related to violence, threats of violence, or intimidation at a polling place should always be reported immediately to local authorities by calling 911, then by contacting the Election Protection Line at 866-OUR-VOTE. Visit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for more detailed information. 

  • Q 6. Can I vote if I am not a U.S. Citizen?

    Typically, you must be a U.S. citizen in order to vote in U.S. elections. Per the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, non-citizens aren’t allowed to vote in federal elections. However, there have been some exceptions made on the local level. For instance, in 2017, San Francisco passed Proposition N, allowing a parent, caregiver, or legal guardian to vote in school board elections of their child’s school district.

  • Q 7. What happens if the polls close while I am waiting in line to vote?

    Per the law, if anyone is still in line once the polls close, they are allowed to stay as long as necessary until they cast their votes. Therefore, ensuring you don’t fall for voter intimidation is vital. In such situations, you may be told to leave because the polls are closed. This is illegal and likely an attempt to trick you out of voting. If the polls close, simply stay in line and wait your turn. If you leave, you can legally be excluded. 

  • Q 8. What happens if the voting machines go down at my polling place?

    As a voter, you must pay careful attention to how the voting machines function. This is because a machine may malfunction, without those in charge realizing the problem. So, if it seems like a voting machine isn’t functioning properly, you should alert those in charge of the facility and call 866-OUR-VOTE to report it as well. Once you have done that, you must request an emergency paper ballot. 

  • Q 9. Can I register to vote on election day?

    Well, to clarify, you can register to vote any day you wish. However, depending on where you live, you may or may not be eligible to vote the same day you register. The states that allow same-day voter registration are as follows:

    • California
    • Colorado 
    • Connecticut 
    • District of Columbia 
    • Hawaii
    • Idaho 
    • Illinois
    • Iowa
    • Maine
    • Maryland
    • Michigan
    • Minnesota
    • Montana
    • Nevada
    • New Hampshire
    • New Mexico
    • Utah
    • Vermont
    • Virginia
    • Washington
    • Wisconsin 
    • Wyoming

    If you live in those states, you should be allowed to register on election day and vote that same day. 

  • Q 10. Can I register to vote where I attend school even if my driver’s license is from another state?

    If you have permanent or temporary residency in the state of your school, you will likely be able to register to vote at your school. However, if you are like many students, that is not the case. In those instances, you will either need to register to vote while you’re at home, register online, or mail in your voter registration form. These are the only ways to ensure you have been properly registered in the state you will be voting in. 

Different Types of Elections

Although national elections undoubtedly receive the most attention, other types of elections may arguably be more important to your daily life. If you’re not politically aware, it is entirely possible to totally miss local election days. Doing so can be detrimental to your county, city, or state. This is why it’s good to understand each election type — and when they’ll take place — so you’re better prepared to cast your vote. You may choose to only vote in general elections, but keep in mind that you will have more impact and say over what happens in your country, state, and city when you participate in all the elections in which you’re eligible to vote.

  • General Election

    General elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. These elections are held to determine which candidates are elected to office. For example, in these elections, you might elect a U.S. president/vice president, state governor, state or local congressional representative, etc. These elections involve voting in local, state, and federal officials, and they usually occur at regular intervals, i.e., every two or four years. However, there may be exceptions in terms of timing, like emergency elections held to replace a public official after they have passed away, resigned, or otherwise been removed from office unexpectedly. 

  • Midterm Election

    A midterm election is when states elect representatives and other subnational officeholders (e.g., governor, members of a local city council) in the middle of a presidential term. These elections are focused on the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Members of the House are elected every two years, while members of the U.S. Senate have six-year terms; every two years, one-third of senators are up for re-election. Midterm elections are an opportunity to hold the top decision-makers of the country accountable by retaining or replacing congressional officeholders. 

  • Primary Election

    If you find yourself often dissatisfied with the quality of candidates on the ballot, you will definitely want to vote in primary elections. These help to determine which candidates will appear on subsequent ballots to take on open political positions. There are two types of primary elections: open and closed.

    The breakdown of each is as follows:

    • Open primaries: These allow voters of all affiliations to vote to help determine which candidates will be on the general election ballot. You can vote for whomever you choose, regardless of party designation; in other words, you are not forced to choose only candidates representing your party. 
    • Closed primaries: These allow voters who are registered in a specific party to vote for which candidates will represent them in general elections. 
  • Other Election-Related Terms to Know

    • Electoral College – In the U.S., instead of being elected directly by citizens, the president and vice president are chosen by “electors” as part of the Electoral College process. Each state gets as many electors as it has members of Congress, and a candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors — more than half of all electors — to win the election. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., all electoral votes for that state are awarded based on who the majority of state citizens vote to elect; Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system. 
    • Convention – A political convention is an event in which candidates are chosen. Conventions can be held to select and nominate county, state, congressional, or presidential/vice presidential candidates. 
    • Caucus – This term is used to describe a meeting or gathering in which supporters of a particular party or candidate nominate candidates, strategize, and plan policies. These meetings are held on precinct, district, and county levels and are typically divided based on political affiliation. Those without a political affiliation tend to form their own caucus. 
    • Special election – This is a type of election that is used to help fill unexpectedly vacated political seats. These elections are called “special” because they only take place when someone leaves office unexpectedly as a result of death, impeachment, or other circumstances that may cause a politician to leave office abruptly. These do not occur on typical election dates. 

How Can You Get Involved (Besides Voting)?

If you’re looking to get involved with politics in college beyond voting, you have many options. If you are passionate and determined enough, you can choose from many avenues in the political process, each with varying degrees of involvement ranging from slightly involved to more intense commitments of time/resources. Just make sure to research expectations when selecting the best option for your political goals. 

  • Volunteer as an Election Worker

    Elections rely heavily on volunteers to help them run efficiently. Volunteering as an election worker is one of the most accessible ways to enter the political realm. It will allow you to learn more about the political process while also helping people make their voices heard. This can be a fantastic way to network with those already involved in politics and may even help you find opportunities to volunteer or work with certain politicians directly. Also, if you have the time, you may even be able to take a paid gig as a poll worker and help voters on election day. Visit Work Elections for more information. 

  • Volunteer with a Political Campaign

    Are you particularly passionate about a specific candidate? If so, you can volunteer to help their campaign efforts. No matter how much free time you have available, you’ll find various ways to help a politician run a more successful campaign. For instance, you can sign up to help send texts to voters, stroll neighborhoods, or go door-to-door to connect, network, and collect signatures and donations. You can even host local events and fundraisers, help with tabling at events, etc. However you approach it, you can make a significant contribution to any candidate’s campaign through the simple act of volunteering.

  • Donating to the Cause

    If you have a few extra bucks to spare, donating to your chosen causes can be a fantastic way to get involved. Most candidates rely heavily on citizen donations of all amounts to help with advertising, travel, and other campaign costs. If candidates uphold certain values or propose initiatives you are passionate about, investing your money can enable them to run a more successful campaign and maybe even win the election. If you choose to donate, be sure to hold them accountable — your work is not over once your candidate has won. It is up to you to follow their political career and remind them of campaign promises. 

  • Call Your Congressman

    Politicians are considered public servants. This means that they must answer to voters about the decisions made on their behalf. Therefore, if there is an issue that you feel strongly about, you can call up your congress member’s office and let them know why. Part of their job is to listen to everyday citizens and help voice their concerns to upper-level decision-makers. Their job is to hear all of the input from the people they serve, and yes, that includes you! Every congressman has staff members to answer those calls and help facilitate conversations, meetings, and other forms of communication.

  • Run for Office

    If you can’t find a politician worthy of your support and have political aspirations, maybe you should run for office! If interested, participating in college elections is an excellent starting point. This helps to give you a taste of what it’s like to be involved in the political process and will also allow you to get some valuable first-hand experience relating to the nuances of politics. Regardless of the outcome of your campaign or initiative, you’ll be much more prepared to run for local, state, or even national government when the time comes.