What First Time Voters Need to Know

What First Time Voters Need to Know (Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images)

Right now, people across the nation are preparing to vote on Super Tuesday, the day in an election season when the most states hold their primary or caucus. For first-time voters, the process can feel quite complicated. It feels like there are millions of hoops to jump through — not to mention all the research that has to get done before filling out a ballot.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, here is a step-by-step guide for both mail-in voting and in-person voting — do whichever works best for you!

How to vote in person

Traditionally, people vote in person at a polling booth, which is still the most popular method. In 2016, 59.9 percent of voters went to the polls on election day to turn in their ballots. Voting in person creates a sense of community and you walk away with a cool "I voted" sticker that you can show off.

1. Find your polling place

There are many resources out there to find out where to vote in person. Since your polling place is assigned to you by neighborhood, you can check your local county election office's website to find out where to go. The location can change with each election, so make sure to double-check where you’ve been assigned.

2. Cast your vote!

Some states have voter identification requirements, so make sure you bring a valid form of ID with you to the polls if you live in one of those states. 

If an issue comes up at the polls that prevents you from voting, like if your name isn't on the registration list at your polling location, you are legally entitled to a provisional ballot in most states. A provisional ballot is a ballot that is used when a voter’s eligibility is in question. This ballot will be kept separate from the others until the office can verify that it was submitted by an eligible voter.

How to vote by mail

Mail-in voting is becoming increasingly popular. In the 2016 Presidential election, 21 percent of all votes were cast by mail. This method is convenient and doesn't require the wait that voting in person can involve.

If you would like to vote by mail or can’t make it to a polling booth in the state you are registered in, follow these steps to make sure your vote gets counted.

1. Request an absentee ballot

If you are voting by mail, you can request an absentee ballot in several ways.

  1. Fill out the form provided by your county elections office. Most counties will have the form posted on their website (you can find California's here.)
  2. You should receive a sample ballot before the election. Attached will be an absentee ballot request form. Fill this out and mail it to your county elections office.
  3. If you're abroad, you can use the Federal Voting Assistance Program's website to request your absentee ballot.

Timing for mail-in voting can be tricky. In California, for example, your ballot must be requested at least 7 days before the election. But it's different for all states. So make sure to request your ballot well in advance.

The form may ask you to provide an excuse for your absence, like being a student outside the state you're registered in. The rules around valid excuses vary from state to state. Some places don't ask you for an excuse at all.

2. Fill that ballot!

3. Mail it in

Again, rules around when your county election office must receive your ballot vary depending on where you live. In California, your ballot has to be received by your county's elections official three days before election day. (But if you run out of time to mail it, you can also deliver in-person — or authorize someone to do that — on election day at any polling place, ballot drop-off location, or county elections office.)

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