Voting in local, state, and national elections is one of the most important ways to ensure that government at all levels adequately represents the will of its citizens. Since voter registration and elections are governed at the state level, access to voting varies depending on where you live. While there are voting rights protections for all Americans, laws and procedures in some states can be burdensome to certain groups.
To help you assert your voice in this imperfect republic, we’ve compiled answers to some of the most common questions you may have about voter registration and your right to vote.
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How do I register to vote and when are the deadlines?
Voter registration procedures and deadlines differ by state. Nearly one-third of states provide for automatic voter registration (AVR) through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or another agency. Not sure whether you’re properly registered? You can check your status through an online service provided by the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia allow residents to register and cast their vote on election day, referred to as same day registration (SDR). Depending on the state, proof of identification or other special procedures may be required for SDR. North Dakota is unique in that registration is not required for casting a vote; just bring a valid ID and proof of residency.
Most states, however, do have deadlines for registration (typically one to four weeks). This includes many states that also allow for SDR. Keep in mind that deadlines may vary by method—whether registration is conducted online, by mail, or in person. Voter registration deadlines in Illinois, for example, are as follows:
- In person. 27 days before election day (although you may register after this, up to and including election day, by following certain procedures).
- By mail. Must be postmarked 28 days before election day.
- Online. 16 days before election day.
How can I register to vote if I do not have an official home?
No states require voters to live in a traditional residence in order to be eligible. If you are currently unhoused because of an eviction, a foreclosure, or for any other reason, you may put the address of a shelter or even a non-residential landmark on your voter registration form. However, even though a non-traditional residence or location will help you establish residency, you’ll also need to provide an address, other than a P.O. box, where you can receive mail.
The ID requirement in many states also creates an obstacle for many unhoused individuals, who likely don’t have a car and may not have a valid driver’s license. While it’s much more difficult for the unhoused to get registered, they do have the right to vote and may seek help from a number of organizations, including the National Coalition for the Homeless.
If you’re unhoused, make sure you update your registration, or just re-register, to reflect your current living situation. If you’re displaced after the registration deadline, you may have to pursue same-day registration or other options, such as filling out a provisional ballot (more on those later).
Can I vote by mail?
All states and the District of Columbia allow absentee voting, also called voting by mail. However, six states, including Texas, require a valid excuse other than concerns about COVID-19 in order to receive a mail-in ballot. About 20 states automatically send vote-by-mail applications or ballots to eligible voters, including California. This reflects major changes in many states to enable contact-free voting during the pandemic.
If you have opted for a mail-in ballot or are in one of the states that is automatically sending them out, you should receive your ballot about 20 to 30 days before election day. You will be given instructions for filling it out, signing it, and either mailing it back or depositing it in a drop box. As long as it’s postmarked before or on the date of the election, it should be valid.
If you requested a mail-in ballot but didn’t receive it prior to election day, then you may vote at your local polling place. Despite claims that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud, evidence shows that this is exceedingly rare and just as secure as in-person voting.
Can I vote if I have a felony conviction?
It depends on your state.
Some states prohibit convicted felons from voting, even after they’ve repaid their debt to society, unless they receive a pardon from the Governor. In nearly half of all states, felons’ voting rights are automatically restored after they’ve completed parole or probation; and in 16 states (plus the District of Columbia), felons’ voting rights are automatically restored upon release from prison.
Felons in Florida must pay all fines, complete all restitution, and fulfill other requirements in order to register to vote. Florida and some other states also prohibit people with certain felony convictions (such as murder or felony sexual assault) from voting.
Just two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote even while they are incarcerated.
What is a valid ID and do I have to bring one with me to the polls?
Again, this depends on your state of residence.
If you need same-day registration, then you will want to bring at least one form of photo ID and proof of residence (specifics will vary by state), but some states require all voters to present ID if they vote in person. Voter ID laws generally break down into the following categories:
- Strict photo ID requirement. Without a state-issued photo ID, voters may fill out a provisional ballot and then prove their identity with a photo ID within a certain time period.
- Strict non-photo ID requirement. Without an approved non-photo ID, voters may fill out a provisional ballot and then prove their identity within a certain time period.
- Photo ID requested. Without a photo ID, the voter may still cast a ballot if they comply with additional requirements, such as signing an affidavit or ensuring that their signature matches the one on file.
- ID requested, but photo not required. Without an approved ID, the voter may still cast a ballot if they comply with additional requirements, such as signing an affidavit or ensuring that their signature matches the one on file.
- No ID or document required. As long as you’re registered, no ID is required to vote.
The types of ID considered valid for the purpose of voting, other than a state-issued driver’s license, vary by state.
Can I vote early?
Besides voting at home and sending your ballot by mail ahead of election day, most states also provide options for early voting in person. No excuse is needed to request early voting, but make sure to check your state’s early voting laws and procedures.
Will there be access to the polls for people with disabilities?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires voter registration and voting to be accessible to voters with disabilities in all states and territories. This includes registration forms for the blind, accessible parking at polling places, wheelchair accessibility, and other such measures. Many people with disabilities choose to vote by mail in order to avoid any potential difficulties on election day, but polling places must also be accessible.
Can I leave work to vote without fear of retaliation or getting fired?
Most, but not all, states require employers to let employees take a reasonable amount of time off from work to vote. However, the requirements vary widely by state. Most states require you to notify your employer of the need for time off at least one working day before election day. Some states require proof that you actually voted during the time indicated.
- Arizona. Time off is not required if the employee has three consecutive nonwork hours available when polls are open, before or after their shift, but may take up to three hours of paid time off (when combined with non-work hours) as needed to vote.
- Florida. No state time-off requirement for voting, but many local municipalities do.
- New Hampshire. Employees may request an absentee ballot if they believe they won’t be able to vote in person because of their job.
What if I need help translating the voting information at my polling place?
You may choose a trusted individual, other than your employer or union representative, to help you if you have difficult reading or writing in English. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain counties to provide bilingual resources in specific languages.
What if I’m told by a poll worker that my name is not on the list?
First, you’ll want to ask the poll worker to double-check and verify the proper spelling of your name and confirm that you’re at the right polling place. Otherwise, you’ll want to ask for a provisional ballot.
Provisional ballots, also called “challenge” or “affidavit” ballots, receive more scrutiny than regular ballots. There are several different reasons why your name may not be on the voter rolls, and—depending on your state—this reason may disqualify you from voting with a provisional ballot.
Idaho, Minnesota, and New Hampshire do not offer provisional ballots.
Can I still vote if I’m standing in line but the polls have officially closed?
Yes, all states either have laws requiring that voters be given a chance to vote if they’re still in line when the polls close, or they follow this rule in practice. Don’t be discouraged and stay in line until you’ve had a chance to vote.
What can I do if someone is interfering with my access to voting?
It is illegal for anyone to intimidate, threaten, or coerce an individual for the purpose of either influencing their vote or discouraging them from voting. This is a federal law covering all U.S. voters. Examples of intimidation may include:
- Forceful questions about one’s citizenship
- Harassing people of color and non-English speakers
- Spreading false or misleading information about voting (for instance, telling people that they have to speak English or pass a test to vote, which is not true)
If you believe you are experiencing or witnessing intimidation or behavior that is interfering with your right to vote, you can request help from one or more poll workers. You can also call the Election Protection hotline to report the incident:
- English: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)
- Spanish: 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682)
- Asian Languages: 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683)
- Arabic: 844-418-1682
Assert your rights and make sure your voice is heard
Democracies only work when you actively participate, which includes voting for local, state, and federal offices. Getting registered and successfully casting your vote isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem, so prepare early. If you have additional questions about your rights, don’t hesitate to ask a lawyer.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.