Before You Vote
Voter eligibility and registration
There are a number of reasons that you may not be eligible to vote. Two important factors are age and US citizenship status. For specific details, see https://www.usa.gov/who-can-vote.
Too Young to Vote
You must be 18 years old to vote in federal and state general elections. Most states have ways to preregister to vote for students under 18 so they are eligible to cast a ballot once they turn 18. For a complete breakdown of pre-registration guidelines by state, visit: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/preregistration-for-young-voters.aspx.
In some states, you may be able to vote in a primary election when you are 17 years old, as long as you will turn 18 by the next general election. Make sure to check your state’s guidelines:
Not a US Citizen
You are required to be a US citizen to vote in federal and state elections. Some cities currently have opportunities for Non-Citizens to vote in local elections (such as school board elections). Check out https://citizenvoters.vote/ for more information and to see a map of where this is applicable.
TurboVote streamlines the process of registering to vote in order to make it easier for you. In addition, it also reminds you of important election information, such as when elections are coming up in your area, or how your state is changing its voting procedures during the current COVID-19 pandemic. TurboVote will also keep you up to date on absentee ballot procedures in your state. The information and support that TurboVote offers makes it an important tool for everyone to sign up for, even if you have already registered to vote.
If you will be living on campus, you have the option of registering to vote in Princeton or your hometown. There are a few things you can consider when making your decision.
In many ways, local elected officials have a great impact on policy related to your everyday life. The mayor, election officials, and county officeholders are positions to consider when looking at local policy.
Swing State Status
For presidential elections, the winner-take-all electoral college system makes some states more competitive than others in choosing the next president. Based on historical trends and the number of registered Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, you can get a general idea which state your vote might be more impactful in. Swing state status is less influential in electing non-presidential office holders. But in general, you can think about your own political leanings in comparison to the region you are voting in, and use that to decide where you would like to vote.
If you plan to move back to your home state after graduation, maybe consider registering in your home town. This will allow you to be politically active in your state over the long term.
For a complete discussion of deciding where to vote, go to https://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/college-resource-center/student-voting-guide/.
Registration deadlines vary by state and can be found at https://www.usvotefoundation.org/vote/state-elections/state-election-dates-deadlines.htm#CA .
When you register to vote you will have the choice to register with a party affiliation (Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, etc.), independent, or unaffiliated. All registered voters, regardless of their party affiliation, can freely vote for whichever candidate or party they choose in a general election. Depending on the state, the primary system may dictate which party’s ballot you have access to during the primary election. In an open primary, you can vote for candidates in any party. In a closed primary, you will only be able to vote for the candidates within your party. If you are unaffiliated and want to vote in a closed primary, you may affiliate with a party, changing your registration status to the party you want to vote for. In addition, you can re-register to vote with a different party affiliation if you would like to change it. Voters registered as independents will not be eligible to vote in a closed primary.
For specifics on the primary system, see this link: https://ballotpedia.org/Primary_election. Some states with “open primaries” will still only give you the ballot for the party with which you are registered, but they will allow you to change your affiliation at your polling place before you receive a ballot. Others may have affiliation policies that apply to only one party. Be sure to check the specific policies in your state beyond whether it is classified as “open” or “closed.”
Look up your state election office with this tool: https://www.usa.gov/election-office or your local election office with this tool: https://www.usvotefoundation.org/vote/eoddomestic.htm. If you are registering at your Princeton address, the New Jersey election office site is here, and information including the contact details for your Mercer County election officials can be found here.
What will I be voting for?
Positions for down ticket races will vary in name and responsibility based on where you live. To see the candidates and positions that will appear on your ballot you can visit your states election website or use this tool: https://ballotpedia.org/Sample_Ballot_Lookup. To use Ballotpedia, simply enter your address ([#] [STREET], [STATE] [ZIP]) to get your local information (email is not required). You may also receive a sample ballot in the mail depending on where you are registered.
Voter ID laws vary by state and are subject to change each election cycle. For general information on Voter ID go to https://www.usa.gov/voter-id. For consolidated information and an interactive map you can visit: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id.aspx#Laws%20in%20Effect.
You can search how to get a photo ID in your state, and you should be able to find your state’s ID registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles (or the equivalent). For New Jersey, you can visit:
Absentee voting & vote by mail
All states have procedures for voting by mail; some require a specific reason, while others just require you to make a formal request. Use this tool to navigate to your state’s election office page to get the specifics: https://www.usa.gov/election-office.
Absentee and mail-in ballots serve the same purpose: to allow an individual to cast their vote without having to physically go to a polling place. Mail-in ballots are used in states where all individuals vote by mail because it is the state’s default system. Absentee ballots are used in states where voting in person is the standard way of voting. Requesting an absentee ballot implies you will be absent from voting on election day and will need to vote by mail instead. The specific definitions can be found here: https://www.dictionary.com/e/absentee-ballot-vs-mail-in-ballot/.
This varies by state, but if you sign up for TurboVote, they will take care of this step for you by sending you an envelope with prepaid postage if your state requires it. All of the states listed at https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/vopp-table-12-states-with-postage-paid-election-mail.aspxalso provide prepaid postage automatically. In all other states, you should pay for postage stamps before mailing your ballot to ensure your ballot is delivered on time. However, if you forget or cannot get stamps in time, the US Postal Service will still deliver your ballot.
When You Vote
Depending on circumstances, you may vote either by absentee, early in person, or on election day. For absentee voting, if you request a ballot by the deadline https://www.vote.org/absentee-ballot-deadlines/ you will be eligible to vote before election day. You may receive your ballot up to 45 days before the election. Other states may also have early in person voting. Early voting procedures by state can be found here: https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/early-voting-in-state-elections.aspx#Early%20Voting%20Law%20Table. If you are voting on election day, you will have at least 12 hours where the polls are open for you to vote. 2020 poll opening and closing times can be found at https://ballotpedia.org/State_Poll_Opening_and_Closing_Times_(2020). If you are standing in line to vote at the time when your polling place is supposed to close, you are still allowed to vote.
If voting early in person or on election day, use this tool to locate where you should go to cast your vote: https://www.vote.org/polling-place-locator/. Remember to check your polling place before every election, even between a primary and a general election, or between early voting and election day. Your polling place one day may change without warning, so it’s always better to check before you head out to cast your vote.
In past elections, rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft have offered free or discounted rides to polling places on election day. In 2020, Lyft is providing rides through community partners like the League of Women Voters, the National Federation of the Blind, Student Veterans of America, National Urban League, and Voto Latino Foundation (https://www.lyft.com/blog/posts/expanding-voting-access-in-2020). Reach out to your local branches of these organizations if you need their assistance with a ride to the polls.
Additionally, local community groups or individuals may be able to assist you in facilitating rides or access to public transportation. You might also consider reaching out to the campaign of a candidate you plan on voting for, or an organization focused on an issue you are passionate about or an identity you have—they can point you in the right direction.
If you have concerns about disability access at your polling place, regulations and resources can be found at the following links:
Polling places are required to be ADA accessible, and voting assistance may be available— https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/voting-rights/#i-am-a-voter-with-a-disability details your rights if you are a voter with a disability. Contact your local election officials with particular questions, or check the resources above if you need to report an inaccessible polling place.
If you need to report a problem at the polling place on election day, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (Spanish), 1-888-API-VOTE (Asian multilingual assistance), or 1-844-YALLA-US (Arabic).
Even if you are ineligible to vote, it doesn't mean you are left out of the democratic sphere. There is so much more to the election process, and to civic engagement more broadly, than voting.
Engaging with the election process beyond voting
- Aside from just voting, there are many other ways to help elect candidates you support. Campaigns often need help reaching out to potential voters over the phone, by text, or through in person canvassing (when it is safe to do so). If you are interested in volunteering with a campaign, they are often responsive to interested volunteers reaching out by phone or email. You can usually find this contact information on a candidate’s website, and they may also have a designated form where volunteers can sign up.
- You can also help other voters by volunteering as a poll worker. Poll workers help run polling stations and make sure the election process runs smoothly. It is especially important that young people volunteer during this pandemic, as poll workers are disproportionately older and are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. If you are comfortable working the polls in person on election day, reach out to your local office of elections to find out if they need additional volunteers. Note that some localities may require you to be a registered voter, but check with your local election authorities for the rules in your area.
- Additionally, Vote100 will also have volunteer opportunities in the fall open to all undergraduates.
Outside the election process
You can also engage civically in ways that will help your communities and the issues you care about beyond the election cycle. Consider joining protests in your area, calling or emailing elected officials, working with local organizers or nonprofits, donating, starting conversations with friends and family, and educating yourself to be an effective advocate. Look through the below resources to find opportunities to help. If you can’t find a group that organizes around a cause you are passionate about, consider starting one yourself—you can contact the Pace Center for assistance.
Pace Center Groups: https://pace.princeton.edu/get-involved/student-organizations
Public Service Opportunities: https://www.usa.gov/volunteer
Charity Database: https://www.charitynavigator.org/
Sign Petitions and Contribute: https://www.change.org/