If you want to make a difference in our country, vote: Every marked ballot helps realize the ideals of our democracy. As we head toward the next general election, however, U.S. voters face critical decisions and unexpected challenges. The presidential race will be the headliner, but we're also deter-mining 11 governorships, 33 Senate seats, and all 435 spots in the House of Representatives. Mayoral contests are taking place in more than 20 of the nation's largest cities, and because this is a census year, many of the officials we elect will be instrumental in decisions (such as redrawing congressional districts) that we'll live with for the next 10 years. On top of it all, we're grappling with how and where to vote safely during a pandemic. No question, the stakes are high.
"This is one of the most consequential elections for our generation," says Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group working on legislation to expand vote-by-mail options. "We tend to focus on the top of the ballot and not think about the power and significance of electoral contests farther down," adds Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote, a grassroots nonprofit aiming to increase voter participation by providing one-on-one assistance to eligible people (volunteers help secure voter IDs and offer rides to the polls). "But between COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, people are starting to realize local elections matter. For example, your mayor appoints your police chief." Here's how to make your vote count.
Before Election Day: Check Your Voting Status
As soon as possible, confirm that your registration is up to date, advises Crystal Carson, VP of communications at When We All Vote, a non-partisan nonprofit headlined by Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monáe, and Michelle Obama with the mission of increasing voter participation by closing the race and age gaps. You can do this in just a minute through the group's site. For state guidelines—like whether you'll need to present an ID when you sign in (36 states require one), go to usvotefoundation.org.
Before Election Day: Research Your Candidates
"There's a lot of misinformation out there," says Virginia Kase, CEO of the 100-year-old League of Women Voters. "Make sure your sources are reputable." Go directly to candidates' sites, she suggests, and bone up on proposed legislation, which you'll find on the websites of your local board of elections or secretary of state. At the league's nonpartisan election site VOTE411.org, you can search for voting guides, new polling locations in your area, and a checklist that walks first-timers through the process.
Before Election Day: Consider Voting by Mail
Fears of COVID-19 exposure might deter some from waiting in long lines, especially indoors, so anything that reduces congestion on November 3 can help increase participation. "If people can vote by mail or vote early, we strongly encourage them to do that," says Kase. (Visit usvotefoundation.org to find out whether you can, and if so, by what date your mail-in ballot must be post-marked.) The sooner, the better, says Calvin. "Boards of elections are going to be overwhelmed," she explains, and states with recently expanded vote-by-mail options are still working out the kinks. "We saw a lot of cases in the primaries where thousands of people did not get their ballots in time."
Before Election Day: Rally Your Community
Orgs like When We All Vote enlist celebrities to leverage their platforms, sharing information and drumming up excitement. "But what we know from our research is that the people you know are the most influential in your life," says Carson. With that in mind, the group offers online training to help people organize their friends and families into "Voting Squads," galvanize the youth vote by starting a chapter of My School Votes, and host virtual registration events, like this spring's "#CouchParty," where DJ D-Nice performed a live set for volunteers while they texted eligible folks (19,000 people started the registration process while he spun). "If you get three people to the polls, and they get three people," says Calvin, "then we're all at the polls."
On Election Day: Prepare to Be Patient
If you have to vote in person, expect to wait. Bring a face mask and hand sanitizer, a book, a charged phone, water and snacks, a filled-out ballot if your state allows it (to speed your actual voting), and the hotline number 866-OURVOTE, in case you encounter problems. Two helpful facts: If you're in line when the polls close, you'll still be let in, as long as you don't leave your spot. Second, if your name doesn't show up on the voter register, you can ask for a provisional ballot. Afterward, don't expect instant results, Calvin says: "It takes a lot of time to count absentee ballots. We're used to knowing who the next president is before the polls close in Alaska, but it's going to be a very different election this year."
On Election Day: Work the Polls
We're facing a nationwide shortage of the helpers who sign you in and escort you to the booths. "It's not always the most glamorous job," says Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, but it's vital. "There's a high correlation between a reduced number of poll workers and a reduced number of polling places"—which means much longer lines. Case in point: In Milwaukee, primary polling locations plummeted from 180 in 2018 to just five this year, partly from fear of COVID-19 exposure. ("Most workers are elderly ladies the nicest on the planet," says Calvin. "We need them to stay home.") Each state has different requirements. Visit workelections.com to learn about training, which takes just a few hours (some states do it online), minimum-age requirements (16 in some states), and pay (never exorbitant). Clarke believes this is the most significant role a person can play in this election—in fact, North Carolina calls its poll workers "democracy heroes." "If you have the time and the ability to serve," she says, "we need that next generation to raise their hands."
On Election Day: Be a Watchdog
Volunteer with Election Protection's nonpartisan poll-monitoring program at 866ourvote.org. With guidance from legal professionals, you'll serve as voters' first line of defense against suppression tactics, confusing laws, and other election irregularities. And remember the number 43, the percentage of U.S. eligible voters—that's 100 million people—who did not participate in the 2016 general election. If that number doesn't decrease, we will continue to rank among the lowest of the world's most highly developed democracies in voter participation (in 2016, we were 26th of 32).