Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to register to vote in the United States

There's an old political saying in the USA: "If you don't vote, you can't complain." But most states won't just let you walk into a polling place and cast your vote on Election Day -- you must register to vote first. A surprising number -- about half -- of American citizens who are eligible don't vote, because they don't know how to register or they're just too lazy to bother. I imagine this would cheese off the millions of people in countries ruled by despots and dictators, who would jump at the chance to vote if little things like jail or beheading didn't stand in their way. Voting is both a right and a privilege, so make sure you exercise it.

Ready? Here's how to register.

You will need:
  1. to be at least 18 years old on or before Election Day.
  2. to be a citizen of the United States of America, either by birth or naturalization.
  3. to be a legal resident of the state in which you live (you may only cast a vote once per election and only for a single residence, so if you share time between houses, pick only one of them as your "voting residence." It's illegal to vote multiple times, so don't do it).
  4. to be free of any other legal complications that would disqualify you from voting (for instance, if you're a convicted felon spending quality time in jail or under a court order that forbids you from voting, you can't vote).
  5. Some form of positive identification; examples may include your driver's license, state-issued ID and/or Social Security card with number.
  6. Internet access, or a working telephone and a local phone book.
Specific rules about registering to vote vary from state to state, and even between different cities in the same state. To get the most accurate information about what to do for your area, find your home state on this map or the list below it, and click on it. If you're stuck with no Internet access (how the heck are you reading this?), find a local phone book and check the government listings for the local election office (if you don't see anything with the word "elections," look for something like "clerk," "registrar" or "auditor"). Call them and they'll give you information about how to register to vote.

Registration deadlines also vary by state. In most states, you must register to vote at least 30 days before the election, though some places have much shorter registration periods. Even if you've missed the deadline to participate in this election, just register anyway; that way you'll be ready for the next one.

You'll probably have several options to register. You can get a mail-in form, fill it out and send it in, or you can get forms and assistance at places like libraries, city and county government offices, DMV offices, even unemployment offices. Once the election office has verified your information, it will send you a voter registration card which you should keep in a safe place. This card will have your voter ID number, your voting precinct and districts, and usually the address of your local polling place (where you'll go on Election Day to cast your vote). In some places, everyone votes by mail-in ballot, so there's no polling address on the registration cards. If you don't get your registration card after a few weeks, call the election office and make sure they got your information; sometimes forms get lost in the mail.

So, now you've got your card, you're registered, and you can vote for ANYONE, right? Wrong. You can only cast your vote for specific offices, depending on where you live. For instance, every registered voter in the United States can cast a vote for President and Vice President, but only Californians can vote in the California gubernatorial race, only Idahoans can vote for Idaho senators, and only Seattle residents can vote in the Seattle mayoral race. This only makes sense, though -- would you really want people from another part of the country to be able to decide who your mayor should be?

If you move, you'll need to re-register under your new address, and will probably get a new voter registration card.

Once you're registered, here's one of two possibilities about how it goes on Election Day:
  1. You grab your registration card and go to your local polling place. Once there, a volunteer for your precinct will ask you to sign your name (indicating that you've voted) and will give you a ballot and send you to a private booth, or direct you to a voting machine. You will get to vote for all national races and all public races in your precinct, as well as any propositions or initiatives on the ballot. Choose wisely. (You can make your decisions ahead of time and bring in a sheet of paper to help you remember your choices.)
  2. Some time before Election Day, you'll get a mail-in ballot and a voters' pamphlet in the mail. You can vote at any time between the day you get the ballot and Election Day itself, and either mail it back or drop it in a local ballot box. (If you choose to mail back your ballot, make sure you give the USPS enough time to get it to your local elections office before Election Day, or it won't be counted.)
All that's left is to sit back, cross your fingers and watch as the precinct reports roll in. Remember, even if your chosen candidate doesn't get elected or the issues you voted for don't pass, you participated and your voice was heard.

Now you've earned the right to kvetch about the bum in office! Well done.

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