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Maybe you’re a voting virgin or you’re a regular at the polls. Either way, we are voting in unprecedented times for the 2020 United States presidential election. For one thing, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, which is making voting a bit wonky to say the least.

But we must vote! And every vote counts. In the past 2 decades, more than a dozen races were decided by either just one vote or they resulted in a tie. Wowza.

In a presidential election year like this one, the big kahuna vote is for who will sit in the Oval Office, of course. But remember, the state candidates you elect to the federal Legislative Branch in both the House and the Senate are the people in charge of enacting legislation. You know, laws and stuff! And same goes for the local candidates. They effect change in your home state, region, and city.

Every vote for every office on your ballot matters. Plus, you get a sticker! And who doesn’t love a sticker? (Not going in-person? Grab a digital version to toss up on your socials.)

Are you fired up yet? Good! OK! Yes! Let’s do it! *Pumps fist in air*

First, let’s decide what kind of voter you are. Not who you’re voting for or how — we’ll get to that part later. This is more about your voter personality or your voter star sign — or something like that.

  • Voting virgin. This will be your first time performing your civic duty.
  • There’s never any time! You’re in full-on Jessie Spano busy mode and wondering when you’ll have time to vote, let alone learn about the candidates in depth.
  • Power procrastinator. You’re planning to vote, but you’ll think about it in November.
  • Quarantined and staying that way. You’re worried about COVID-19 safety when it comes to voting.
  • The anxious activist. You’re eager to vote, but you’ve got some election anxiety going on.
  • Out-of-towner. You’ll be away from your usual polling jurisdiction on election day.

Whichever kind of voter you are, you’ll find what you need in our snackable guide to get you through the voting process. Take it one cronch at a time.

Let’s talk about the basics, baby! To vote you have to be at least 18 before — or on! — the date of the election, which BTW is November 3. You also must be a U.S. citizen.

More than 30 states require some form of identification. In some cases, that’s a photo ID. You can check your state’s ID requirements here. You also have to be registered.

Getting registered

In most cases, registering to vote is as simple as filling out a form. And you can register in many states before you turn 18 if you’ll be adulting officially by or on election day.

If you’ve never registered to vote before, grab your pumpkin spice whatever and do that now because most state’s registration deadlines are in October. Some states, but not all, do allow you to register to vote on election day if you’ve missed earlier registration deadlines.

Weird fact: You do not need to register to vote if you live in North Dakota.

If you’re not sure if you’re registered, you can check that! And it’s a good idea to peek at your status either way to make sure you are registered with your current name (maybe you recently changed it) and address. Approximately 1 in 8 voter registrations are no longer valid or contain an inaccuracy.

That whole idea of “current address” can get a little confusing if you’re a student temporarily living away from, say, your parents’ home. In that case, you can cast an absentee ballot by mail if you want to. Or you can register to vote in the state you’re residing in, as long as you meet that state’s residency requirements. Check yours here.

A state cannot have a residency requirement of longer than 30 days, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling. And, yes, you can list your dorm address as your residence.

A look at all the ways you can cast your vote

Before you even decide on the who of voting, you’ve got to decide on the how. That’s because some methods have those dreaded deadlines before election day.

  • Walk-up. Walk-up voting entails arriving at your designated polling place and waiting in line for an open polling booth to cast your vote. Keep in mind that this method may take extra time this year because of coronavirus sanitizing protocols.
  • Drive-through. Some states are offering drive-through voting locations. Although methods vary, the concept typically involves casting a paper ballot from your car that then goes into a drop box.
  • Absentee ballot. All states offer an absentee ballot you can send in by mail. But some states require an excuse to use one — such as you’ll be away on election day. If you’re planning on this method, check your state’s rules and request your ballot prior to the cutoff date.
  • Vote-by-mail. Voting by mail is essentially casting an absentee ballot. Some states are offering all residents this option regardless of their reason. In other states you must provide an excuse. And in most states, COVID-19 can be your reason. Be sure to check your state’s specific rules and request your ballot well before the deadline to avoid any USPS snafus.
  • Early voting in person. In some states, you can cast your ballot early at a few designated polling places. If you want to vote in person, early voting can help you avoid crowds. It can also ensure that nothing keeps you from voting, like an unexpected illness, flat tire, or emergency. And since some early voting locations are open on weekends, you might find that this option fits better with a hectic schedule, rather than waiting for election day.

Customize your voting plan so you’re steady and ready

Now that you’ve figured out your voting logistics, like whether you’ll be at the booth or in your bed eating bonbons when you fill out your ballot, you should make a plan of action for getting it done.

  • Polling place. If you’re voting in person, figure out your precinct’s polling location and its hours of operation. Find out if it’s drive-through only.
  • Transportation. Will you be hoofing it to your polling place, driving, or catching a ride with a friend? With the help of nonprofit funding, rideshare app Lyft is offering free and discounted rides to and from polling spots.
  • Make your cheat sheet. After you research candidates and issues (more on that later), make a paper cheat sheet to take with you into the voting booth. Some states do not allow cell phone use inside a polling location, so check your state laws. But you have the right to refer to paper notes no matter what. One easy method is to print a sample ballot and take it with you.
  • Mail-in-voting/absentee ballot. You don’t need to make much of a plan here. But do set aside time to fill out your ballot and mail it. In some states, you may be able to place your ballot in a drop box or hand-deliver it to your election office. Check rules first.
  • Postage. In some states, your mail-in ballot will come with a pre-paid postage symbol. In other states, you’ll be required to pay postage. That being said, if your ballot has insufficient postage, the USPS will still deliver it, according to its policies and recent statements to the press.

Whew! Now that you’ve figured out the logistics, it’s time to take a deep breath, walk the dog, talk to your plants, eat some tacos. Just do something chill already. When you’re ready, you can research candidates, their political party affiliations, and their stances on the big issues of 2020. And big ones there are!

Ballot info

One of the best ways to start your research is to figure out what’s on the ballot in your area. Use Ballotpedia to plug in your address and get a sample ballot. You can also check with your local election office for ballot deets.

Candidates and political parties

A sample ballot will provide you with each candidate’s political party affiliation. If you aren’t sure which political party you prefer, you can research their platforms by visiting their official websites: Democratic, Republican (GOP), Libertarian, etc.

Some candidates are independent, meaning they aren’t affiliated with a specific political party. Political parties take stances on key issues. Individual candidates also take stances and often pledge specific reform on those issues if elected.

Hot-button issues

Pew Research Center lists 12 hot-button topics for the 2020 election, including health care, Supreme Court appointments, the coronavirus pandemic, gun policy, racial inequality, economic inequality, climate change, and abortion, to name a few.

Taking stock of where you stand on these issues can help you determine how to vote.

Finding unbiased, reliable information

The internet is teeming with information and, unfortunately, lots of disinformation. Disinformation comes in the form of biased websites disguised as news sites, random social media posts from people reposting false info, and more. That puts the responsibility on the average citizen to do their best to root out fake news.

Read reliable news sources

Where you get your news matters if you want to be a truly informed voter. The Interactive Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media can help you decide on which publications to read. Check out this video on how to use it.

In short, stick to publications with logos in the green box on the chart for the most reliable and unbiased info — in other words, stuff that prints just the facts!

Fact check

If you do see a claim on, say, that one dude from high school’s social media post, you can usually fact check it. Plug the info into PolitiFact, operated by the Poynter Institute. You can also just scroll through some of the claims PolitiFact has recently fact checked and see where the information landed on its “Truth-O-Meter” and why.

Voter discrimination and suppression are real. Disenfranchisement laws prevent 1 in 13 Black Americans from voting. And many of those same laws and others unfairly limit the ability for Native Americans to vote, especially those living on reservations.

How do you combat voter suppression? It helps to Know. Your. Rights! And understand the tactics.

  • Voter ID laws. More than 21 million U.S. citizens do not have government-issued identification. That could add up to tens of thousands of people not being able to vote in certain states.
  • Outdated registration rules. Registration cut-off dates and residency rules make some people ineligible to vote and complicate voting for those who are homeless.
  • Voter purges. States are required to update vote rolls, but improper purging of names can prevent people from voting if they aren’t aware they’re name has been removed. Between 2014 and 2016, leading up to the presidential election, nearly 16 million voters were purged from voter rolls nationwide, and it happened more often in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination.
  • Restrictions on convicted felons. In some states, you lose your right to vote, either temporarily or permanently, if you’re convicted of a felony. Past convictions disproportionately affect Black individuals at a rate of 4 times that of other Americans.
  • Fewer polling sites. The location and number of polling sites in a district can unfairly hinder residents’ ability to vote, and the problem most often impacts minority populations.

Can’t get enough voting info? In addition to VoteAmerica, these resources have the facts and content to hope you vote smartly and safely in 2020.

  • Rock the Vote has been inspiring young people to vote for 3 decades and counting.
  • TurboVote lets you sign up for election alerts specific to your area and provides additional tools.
  • Vote.org outlines your election protections and rights and provides a host of other info, including an election countdown clock.
  • Vote411.org is brought to you by the League of Women Voters Education Fund and provides you personalized voting information.
  • U.S. Election Assistance Commission provides important election day news and info, content for poll workers (plus how to become one), and resources for voters with disabilities.
  • Ballotpedia offers customized sample ballots and provides a wealth of info as a nonpartisan political encyclopedia.