Nothing about 2020 feels normal, but this year’s presidential election has the chance to be especially different.
When it comes to voter registration, things are already changing. Millions of Americans usually register during the spring before an election — whether it’s at their school, the DMV or some other public sign-up station.
But those numbers have fallen drastically amid the global pandemic. In fact, the number of new voters registered by April of this election cycle had fallen by 70 percent when compared to April 2016, according to a nonpartisan study by the Center for Election Innovation & Research.
That puts millions of potential ballots in jeopardy — including a large share from Gen Z voters, who are expected to make up 10 percent of the electorate this year. Registration is still possible, but with many public buildings still closed or just now reopening, there simply aren’t as many easy ways to get it done.
“People can still register, the government’s not closed, but without that personal contact, [without] people encouraging their friends to register, that’s why we’ve seen such a big drop-off,” Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams told NPR in May.
Thankfully, there are still countless ways to register remotely (no matter where you live). It’s just about knowing when to do it, where to go and what you need.
Table of Contents
What you need to register
Every state has its own rules for registering, but there are a few forms of identification you should always have on-hand.
You’ll almost always need some sort of ID number — either from a current, valid license or your social security number. If you have neither of those, most states will allow you to prove your legal ability to vote with other documentation, according to HeadCount, a voting-focused non-profit.
Another must-have: An address from which you plan to vote. Ideally, this is the location where you’ll be living when you cast your ballot.
Some states will require additional info as well. For example, Arizona and Kansas require proof of citizenship, such as a driver’s license, a birth certificate or a naturalization certificate. Meanwhile, Wisconsin requires a firm proof of residency (meaning a document that contains the address where you live) from all voters, while South Carolina and Vermont only require this for mail-in registrations.
How to register online, or by mail
There are countless websites that make it extremely easy (and fast!) to register online. A simple one: USAGov, which will direct you straight to the online portal for your state or territory.
Plenty of non-profits — like Rock The Vote, Vote411 and Vote.org — will give you similar access to a simple, straightforward registration portal, and they’ll also provide you with plenty of info about casting your ballot on Election Day.
If you’d rather register in person, you can check your state’s local election offices by using USAGov’s search tool. It can help you find the closest registration site to you, plus figure out if and when the location is still open.
To register by mail, use the search tool to find your local election office, then print out, fill out and mail in the voter registration form, which will be readily available on their website (the form is slightly different for each state).
Understanding your state’s deadline
Each state has its own set of deadlines, so you’ll need to check with yours individually to make sure you register on time.
Thankfully, Vote.org has a full, alphabetical list of each state’s deadlines. The non-profit’s website will tell you exactly how many days before Election Day (this year: Tuesday, Nov. 3) your registration is due. Normally, these deadlines range between one week to one month beforehand, and may differ based on whether you’re registering online, in person or by mail.
If you miss your state’s deadline, don’t freak out. Many states allow for same-day registration, meaning you can sign up on Election Day itself. To see if your state is one of those, you can check Vote.Org for a full list.
Researching the candidates
With the presidential race getting so much attention, it’s easy to forget that there could be dozens of other names on your ballot in November.
These additional races range in size from the U.S. Senate to the city council, and they’ll be totally unique to the state, district and county where you live.
That makes researching the candidates a highly specific process, but thankfully, there’s an easy way to “preview” exactly who you’ll be deciding on in November. Ballotpedia.org has a simple, “sample ballot lookup” tool, which will show you every candidate currently running for local, state and national elections in your area.
The tool is simple: Just enter your ZIP code, and Ballotpedia will bring up a full breakdown of the races. From there, you can get into your research.
Explore the candidates’ websites, check out their social media pages, read local coverage of their backgrounds and watch videos of campaign rallies. The more you can get directly from each source, the better.
Lastly, it helps to understand how each position affects your everyday life (for example, what does a city attorney actually do?). Knowing this will help you put the issues into context, and decide what you think matters most.
If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s interview with Marti Cummings, who’s running to become New York City’s first non-binary city council member.
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