How to Vote
Although voting is a fundamental right, it is not automatic. There are still certain conditions, such as being an American citizen. Persons born in the United States are automatically given American citizenship. Persons born outside of the country must take a test in order to become a citizen.
Voter registration is governed by state boards of election, and is different in every state. In every state except North Dakota, citizens must register to vote before they can cast a ballot. In most states, registration must take place at least thirty days prior to the election. In some states, such as Wisconsin, registration can take place on Election Day.
Registering to vote is easy. With the passage of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (or Motor Voter bill), citizens are given the opportunity to register to vote as they apply for their driver's license. This has increased voter registration, particularly among young Americans. Most states' registration process requires the soon-to-be voter to select a political party (or remain independent) and provide a home address.
Citizens also can register to vote at the state board of elections, post office, and at other state agencies. Registered voters are required to submit a change of address for moves within state, and re-register for moves outside of state.
In 1992, an organization called Rock the Vote was formed with the goal of increasing registration and turnout among young Americans. Over the years, Rock the Vote has partnered with popular celebrity icons, including Madonna and Kid Rock, to get the message out. In a humorous twist, it was revealed that Lenny Kravitz, one of Rock the Vote's spokespersons during the 2000 election, hadn't voted in nearly a decade.
Casting a Ballot
Elections are governed and run by state government. Every state has its own rules for carrying out the mechanics of voting. Most states use schools, firehouses, churches, and community centers as polling places.
Registered voters are required to go to their assigned polling place, where they must show proper identification before casting a ballot. Some states have rules prohibiting candidates and their volunteers from distributing campaign literature within a certain distance of the polling places, while other states have no such restrictions.
The state of Oregon is unique when it comes to voting. In 1995, it adopted Voting by Mail (VBM) for statewide primary and general elections. Voters in Oregon have the option of either voting by mail or voting at polling places on Election Day. Since adopting VBM, voter turnout in Oregon has increased. A majority of Oregon residents now use VBM.
The states also determine the hours of operation on Election Day. New York offers its voters the most time to cast their votes, opening the polls at 6 A.M. and closing at 9 P.M. Most states open the polls at 8 A.M. and close at 7 P.M. New Hampshire opens the latest at 11 A.M., while Indiana, Hawaii, and Kentucky close the earliest at 6 P.M.
As we learned during the disputed Florida election in 2000, ballots come in many shapes, sizes, configurations, and levels of complexity. Some localities (most notably, Palm Beach, Florida) use the “butterfly” ballot; others use lever-booths; still others employ simple pen and paper.
As a result of the 2000 election, there has been a push by both the federal and state governments to modernize and standardize the equipment and procedures for casting ballots. Many states and localities are spending millions of dollars on new machinery so as to minimize lost and defective ballots, confusion, and erroneous tabulations. Not surprisingly, the state that has spent the most on new voting machinery is Florida.
Every state allows for voters to cast their ballots from outside of the state. This is known as absentee voting, and in close elections it can sometimes make the difference between victory and defeat. In 1994, California Congresswoman Jane Harman trailed her opponent by several hundred votes on Election Day, but pulled ahead after the absentee ballots were tallied.
Military personnel, college students, and business travelers most commonly use absentee ballots. The ballots can be obtained at the local board of elections. Most states require that absentee ballots be postmarked no later than Election Day. During the disputed Florida election of 2000, absentee voting by overseas military personnel played a decisive role in providing candidate George W. Bush his razor-thin margin of victory over Vice President Gore.