How to Vote for the First Time as a College Student

A step-by-step guide to making sure your voice is heard.

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Sep 25 2018, 6:53pm

Stock photo via Getty

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The year 2014 was a bad one for democracy. Only around 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the midterm elections, and less than 20 percent of voters under 30; in Michigan, a measly 14 percent of students voted. In 2016 the youth voter turnout ticked up to around 50 percent—presidential elections being much bigger affairs than midterms—but that still lagged behind overall turnout numbers for the general election. Given how much young people favored Hillary Clinton, it's not wild speculation to say that if more students had voted in Michigan that swing state might well have flipped to her.

Why don't students vote? I doubt it's because they are apathetic or uninformed—at least not more so than older people. Sometimes it's because the candidates fail to inspire them, but often the reasons are more banal. "There’s a lot of young people who didn’t vote because of logistical things," said Abby Kiesa of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Maybe they didn't know where to vote or how to get there, or maybe they forgot about it until the polling place was already closed.

A large part of the blame for low student turnout can be pinned on adults for not teaching young people how to vote, or why it's important. "We don’t commit to making sure that every young person in every community, no matter their background knows that their voice matters and knows how they can participate in democracy," Kiesa told me. "That is a systemic failure on multiple systems’ parts." Worse, Republican-pushed voter ID laws make it harder for students (and poor people, and people of color) to vote.

The way elections are decided in this country is a mess in many ways, and the system does not cater to young people. Still, this is what we have to work with. “Voting is the way we have the issues that we care about be addressed. Even if the candidates we support don’t win, by showing up and being counted each election cycle we’re being heard,” Mike Burns, the national director of the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project, told me. So consider this your guide to making sure your voice matters—and though some of this applies mostly to college students, most of it can be used by young people who aren't students, or first-time voters of any age:

1. Google Your State's Voter Laws Right Now

There is no one-size-fits-all advice for students when it comes to voting. There are a variety of rules about registration deadlines and absentee ballots depending on which state you are in, and you should look those rules up RIGHT THIS SECOND before you read any further.

2. Start Making a To-Do List

Before we get to the actual nuts and bolts of voting, you should know that depending on where you live voting may be an annoying process requiring multiple trips to government offices, the post office, or a polling place, and you'll probably have to do it on weekdays when you're going to school. Sorry: This shit fucking sucks and as soon as you acquire any kind of political power you should try to change this process to make it easier. But for now, you should make a checklist, make a plan for exactly how and when you're going to register to vote and cast your ballot, and set phone reminders or whatever else you need to do to actually follow through on all this.

Honestly, if you read about your state's laws, make a plan for how to vote, and write that plan down so you don't forget, you can probably skip the rest of this. Those are the most important things.


3. Register to Vote as Soon as You Possibly Can

Election Day this year doesn't come until November 6, but before you can vote you need to register, and many states require you to register at least 30 days before the election. There's no reason not to do this now, while you're reading about it! Some states allow you to do this online, but other states make it trickier.

If you haven't registered to vote or aren't sure if you have, check out Turbovote, a service that helps people vote.

Burns used the example of Michigan. It has a 30-day registration deadline, along with some other wrinkles. For one thing, the DMV and voter registration systems are linked so that if you change your address in one, it automatically changes the other. And unless you register to vote in person, like at a city clerk's office, you won't be able to use an absentee ballot the first time you vote. So if you're a student who's moved from somewhere in Michigan to a college campus and register by mail using your parents' address, you'll have to go back to your hometown to vote on Election Day. That type of weird situation is why you should look up how to register and how to vote. (Students in Michigan can avoid this problem by either registering using their campus address, registering in person at a clerk's office, or picking up an absentee ballot in person.)

4. You Can Register in Your Home State or Your College State

As Burns explained, if you moved out of state for college you can still vote in elections that happen in your previous state if you intend to go back there—or you can register at your new address if you consider that to be your home now. But if you are going to vote in your old state's election, you need to get an absentee ballot, and you should do that RIGHT NOW.

5. How to Get an Absentee Ballot

Again, this varies by state. Some states allow you to request an absentee ballot online, but sometimes you have to mail in a form, get an absentee ballot in the mail, then send that ballot back—more interaction with snail mail than a lot of young people are used to. So you should look up your state's rules about this.

Burns warned me that some states require witnesses to sign your absentee ballot, or even have a notary sign off on it, which gives you all the more reason to look up the rules and read them carefully.

6. Check to Make Sure You're Registered

Even if you can't register to vote online, you can probably use the internet to check that you're registered and that your address is correct. Burns noted that some states screw up registrations close to the deadline, so you should double-check that you're good to vote.

While you're at it, see what kind of early voting options exist where you live—early voting is probably going to be more convenient than actually casting a ballot on Election Day.

7. Figure Out Where and When to Vote

If you have to vote on Election Day, you'll have to make sure you're going to the right polling place, and you'll have to make sure you go there when it's open. This might mean going early in the morning, or between classes, or at the end of the day. If you don't have a car you might have to take public transportation or carpool there. It shouldn't be too far away, but look up the address so you're sure you know where you're going.

8. Be Aware of Whether You Need ID

Once you've registered, your name should be on the list of voters at the polling station, and in most states, you won't need to provide any kind of identification once you arrive. But in some states, like Texas and Wisconsin, there are stricter voter ID laws that require voters carry photo identification to cast ballots—and often, those exclude student IDs. In Tennessee, Burns pointed out, a college ID card can be used to vote if the person holding it is a faculty or staff member but not if that person is a student.

“The only justification for that that I can think of is they don’t want students to vote,” Burns told me.

But these restrictions are not common—again, look up your local laws. “People assume that there are more strict policies around ID than there really are sometimes," Kiesa said. "Checking whether you need to bring something and what it is are huge.”

9. If You Run into Any Problems...

One resource Burns pointed me to is the Election Protection Hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE is a number you can call if you are having any difficulty voting. The group's website also has a ton of good resources that can help guide you through the registration and voting process.

Even if you register and go to the correct polling place on Election Day, there's a chance your name may not be on the list. In that case, you'll be asked to fill out a provisional ballot, which will still be counted as long as you're in the right place. I did that when I voted in the California primary earlier this year, then checked on the status of my ballot online and sure enough it counted.

The process may sound confounding at first, but the truth is once you're registered and know where and when to vote, that's pretty much it. “I hate sounding like an alarmist about it," said Burns. "For a lot of folks, it’s pretty easy to register and vote during early voting or at a polling place on Election Day. But for a large number of students there are these additional steps.”

Voting for the first time really is the hardest part. After a while it will become routine—you just have to know when the elections are, and of course it's good to have a vague idea of who the candidates are so you can make an informed decision. But if you don't vote, you're making no kind of decision at all. Go register right now.

For more information and assistance, check out TurboVote.

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