What Are the Requirements for Voting in US Elections?

Make Sure You Have These Things When You Show Up at Your Polling Place

Detail - The County Election by George Caleb Bingham
The County Election by George Caleb Bingham.

The requirements for voting are different in every state, but there are some very basic qualifications every voter must must meet before they exercise your right to vote in local, state and federal elections. The fundamental requirements for voting are being a U.S. citizen, being at least 18 years old, being a resident of your voting district and - the most important of all - actually being registered to vote.

Even if you meet all those requirements for voting, though, you still might find yourself shut out of the voting booth in the next election depending on the rules in your state. To make sure you're able to vote on Election Day, and make informed choices, make sure you carry these things to your local polling place.

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Photo Identification

Pennsylvania Voter ID Card
This is a government-issued voter identification card in Pennsylvania. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

A growing number of states are passing controversial voter-identification laws requiring citizens to prove they're really who they say they are before entering the voting booth. Before heading out to vote, make sure you know your state's laws and what passes for acceptable identification.

Many states with such voter laws accept driver's licenses and any similar government-issued photo identification, including those for military members, state or federal employees and university students. Even if your state doesn't have a voter ID law, it's always prudent to carry identification with you. Some states require first-time voters to show ID.

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Voter Registration Card

Voter Registration Card
This is a sample voter registration card issued by a local government. Will County, Illinois

Even if you've proven you are who you say you are by showing a valid identification card, there's still potential for problems. When you show up to vote, election workers will check a list of voters registered at the polling place. What if your name isn't on it?

Most jurisdictions are required to issue voter registration cards every few years, and they will show your name, address, polling place, and in some cases party affiliation. If you're carrying this on Election Day, you're in good shape.

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Important Phone Numbers

Vote sign
A sign instructs Floridians on where to vote in the 2012 primary. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

You've got your photo ID and your voter registration card. Things can still go wrong. They can range from a lack of handicapped accessibility, no help for voters with limited English ability, confusing ballots and no privacy inside the voting booth. Fortunately, there are channels through which Americans can report voting problems.

It's wise to look in your phone book's blue pages or your county's government's website for the phone number of your elections office. If you run into any of these problems, call your board of elections or file a grievance. You can also speak to a judge of elections or other people on duty who can help you at the polling place.

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Voters Guide

League of Women Voters Guide
This a voters guide published by the League of Women Voters. League of Women Voters

Pay attention to your local newspaper in the days and weeks leading up to an election. Most of them will publish a voters guide containing bios of the candidates appearing on your local ballot, and explanations of where they stand on issues important to you and your community.

Also, some good-government groups including the League of Women Voters publish nonpartisan voter's guides that you're allowed to carry with you into the voting booth. A note of caution: Be wary of pamphlets published by special-interest groups or political parties.

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List of Polling Places

Voting booths
Voters cast their ballots in during the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary in April 2012 in Philadelphia. Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images News

Here's something that's happens in every town, in every election: A voter shows up at what he believes to be his polling place only to be told, "Sorry, sir, but you're at the wrong location," or worse, there's no polling place there anymore. Given the state of gerrymandering and the many weirdly shaped congressional districts, this is a very real possibility.

Showing up at the wrong polling place is not uncommon. In some cases you might be able to cast a provisional ballot, but it might be just as easy to drive over to the right polling place - providing you know where it is. It's a good idea to get a current list of polling places from your town or county. Sometimes they change, and you'll want to stay on top of where you're supposed to be.