Registering to Vote

Man arriving at registration desk in polling place
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In all states except North Dakota, registering to vote is required in order to cast a ballot.

What is Voter Registration?
Voter registration is the process used by the government to ensure that everyone who votes in an election is legally eligible to do so, votes in the correct location and only votes once. Registering to vote requires that you give you correct name, current address and other information to the government office that runs elections where you live.

It might be a county or state or city office.

Why is Registering to Vote Important?
When you register to vote, the elections office will look at your address and determine which voting district you will vote in. Voting in the right place is important because who you get to vote for depends on where you live. For example, if you live on one street, you may have one set of candidates for city council; if you live the next block over, you may be in a different council ward and be voting for completely different people. Usually the people in a voting district (or precinct) all go to vote in the same location. Most voting districts are fairly small, though in rural areas a district can stretch for miles. Whenever you move, you should register or re-register to vote in order to make sure you always vote in the right place.

Who Can Register to Vote?
To register in any state, you need to be a U.S. citizen, 18 or older by the next election, and a resident of the state.

Most, but not all, states have two other rules as well: 1) you can't be a felon (someone who has committed a serious crime), and 2) you can't be mentally incompetent. In a few places, you can vote in local elections even if you are not a U.S. citizen. To check the rules for your state, call your state or local elections office.

College Students: College students who live away from their parents or hometown can usually register legally in either place.

Where Can You Register to Vote?
Since elections are run by states, cities and counties, the rules on registering to vote are not the same everywhere. But there are some rules that apply everywhere: for example, under the "Motor Voter" law, motor vehicle offices across the United States must offer voter registration application forms. Other places required the National Voter Registration Act to offer voter registration forms and assistance include: state or local government offices such as public libraries, public schools, offices of city and county clerks (including marriage license bureaus), fishing and hunting license bureaus, government revenue (tax) offices, unemployment compensation offices, and government offices that provide services to persons with disabilities.

You can also register to vote by mail. You can call your local elections office, and ask them to send you a voter registration application in the mail. Just fill it out and send it back. Election offices are usually listed in the phone book in the government pages section. It may be listed under elections, board of elections, supervisor of elections, or city, county or township clerk, registrar or auditor.

Especially when elections are coming up, the political parties set up voter registration stations at public places like shopping mall and college campuses. They may try to get you to register as a member of their political party, but you don't have to do so in order to register.

NOTE: Filling out the voter registration form does not mean that you are actually registered to vote. Sometimes application forms get lost, or people don't fill them out correctly, or other mistakes happen. If in a few weeks you have not received a card from the elections office telling you that you are registered, give them a call. If there's a problem, ask them to send you a new registration form, fill it out carefully and mail it back. The Voter Registration card you receive will probably tell you exactly where you should go to vote.

Keep your Voter Registration card in a safe place, it's important.

What Information Will You Have to Provide?
While voter registration application forms will vary depending on your state, county or city, they will always ask for your name, address, date of birth and status of U.S. citizenship. You also have to give your driver's license number, if you have one, or the last four digits of your Social Security number. If you don't have either a driver's license or a Social Security number, the state will assign you a voter identification number. These numbers are to help the state keep track of voters. Check the form carefully, including the back, to see the rules for the place where you live.

Party Affiliation: Most registration forms will ask you for a choice of political party affiliation. If you wish to do so, you can register as a member of any political party, including Republican, Democrat or any "third party," like Green, Libertarian or Reform. You can also choose to register as "independent" or "no party." Be aware that in some states, if you don't select a party affiliation when you register, you will not be allowed to vote in that party's primary elections. Even if you do not select a political party and do not vote in any party primary elections, you will be allowed to vote in the general election for any candidate.

When Should You Register?
In most states, you need to register at least 30 days before Election Day. In Connecticut you can register up until 14 days before an election, in Alabama 10 days.

Federal law says that you can't be required to register more than 30 days before the election. Details on registration deadlines in each state can be found on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Web site.

Six states have same-day registration - Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

You can go to the polling place, register and vote at the same time. You should bring some identification and proof of where you live. In North Dakota, you can vote without registering.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the public domain document "I Registered, Did You?" distributed by the League of Women Voters.