Registering to Vote in US Elections

Volunteer with the Brooklyn Voters Alliance holds a clipboard that reads "Register to VOTE here"

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Registering to vote is required in order to cast ballots in elections in all states except North Dakota.

Under Articles I and II of the U.S. Constitution, the manner in which federal and state elections are conducted is determined by the states. Since each state sets its own election procedures and regulations, it is important to contact your state or local elections office to learn your state’s specific election rules.

How to Vote

With the exception of state-specific rules, the basic steps to voting are the same almost everywhere.

  • Voter registration is required in every state except North Dakota.
  • Every state allows absentee voting.
  • Most states assign voters to vote at specific polling places or voting locations.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission lists federal election dates and deadlines by state.

Who Cannot Vote?

The right to vote is not universal. Some people, depending on their circumstances and state laws, will not be allowed to vote.

  • Non-citizens, including permanent legal residents (green card holders), are not allowed to vote in any state.
  • Some people who have been convicted of felonies cannot vote. These rules may vary by state.
  • In some states, persons who have been legally declared mentally incapacitated cannot vote.

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 your correct name, current address, and other personal information to the government office that runs elections where you live. It might be a county, state, or city office.

Registering to Vote

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 the city council; if you live on 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. College students who live away from their permanent residence can usually register legally in either of their addresses.

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: you can't be a felon (someone who has committed a serious crime), and 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.

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 laws in place for every state: for example, under the "Motor Voter" law, motor vehicle offices across the United States must offer voter registration application forms.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires states to offer voter registration forms at any and all offices offering public assistance. This includes state and local government buildings such as public libraries, schools, offices of city and county clerks (including marriage license bureaus), fishing and hunting license bureaus, government revenue (tax) offices, unemployment compensation offices, and offices that provide services to persons with disabilities.

You can also register to vote by mail in most states. Call your local elections office and ask them to send you a voter registration application or go online to download and print the form yourself. Then, just fill it out and send it to your local election office. Visit the Election Official Directory by the U.S. Vote Foundation to find contact information for your office.

Especially when elections are coming up, most political parties set up voter registration stations in public places such as shopping malls 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 to vote. Some states will require you to vote for the political party you are registered with in primary and caucus elections, but all registered voters may vote for whichever candidates they choose in the general election.

Note

  • Filling out the voter registration form does not make you automatically registered to vote. Sometimes application forms get lost, they aren't filled out correctly, or another mistake happens that prevents an application from being accepted. 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 for 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.

What Information You Have to Provide

While voter registration application forms vary depending on your state, county, or city, they 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, Green, Libertarian, and other third parties. You can also choose to register as "independent" or "no party." Be aware that some states will not let you vote in primary elections without selecting a party affiliation when you register. But even if you never select a political party or vote in any party primary elections, you will be allowed to vote in the general election for any candidate.

When to Register

In many states, you need to register at least 30 days before Election Day. However, some states are much more accommodating. In Connecticut, for example, you can register as few as seven days before an election. Iowa and Massachusetts accept applications up to 10 days prior. 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 website.

As of 2019, 21 states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

In all of these states except North Carolina (which allows same-day registration only during early voting), you can go to the polling place, register, and vote at the same time. Bring identification, proof of address, and anything else your state requires for this. In North Dakota, you can vote without registering.

View Article Sources
  1. "North Dakota....The Only State Without Voter Registration." State of North Dakota Secretary of State, Aug. 2017.

  2. "Absentee and Early Voting." USA.gov, 18 Sep. 2020.

  3. "Who Can and Can't Vote in U.S. Elections." USA.gov, 7 May 2020.

  4. "Do You Have to Vote for the Party You're Registered With?" USA.gov, 2 Sep. 2020.

  5. "Register to Vote in Your State by Using This Postcard Form and Guide." U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

  6. "Same Day Voter Registration." National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 Aug. 2020.