Voting Requirements for Elections in the United States

What You'll Need to Bring to Cast Your Ballot

A young woman voting on election day

 adamkaz / Getty Images

The requirements for voting are different in every state. Of course, there are some very basic qualifications every voter must meet before they exercise their right to vote in local, state, and federal elections. In order to vote, you must be a U.S. citizen. You must be at least 18 years of age. You must be a resident of the voting district in which you are voting, and—most importantly—you must be registered to vote.

Even if you meet all the requirements, depending on the rules in your particular state, you still may find yourself shut out of the voting booth at the next general election. (In fact, several states have recently implemented laws changing previous requirements.) In order to ensure you're able to make your vote count, your best bet is to bring the following items with you to your local polling place—whether you need them or not.

01
of 05

Photo Identification

This is a government-issued driver's license card in California

Handout / Getty Images 

A growing number of states are passing controversial voter-identification laws that require citizens to prove they really who they say they are before entering the voting booth. If you have any question, you can check out the voter requirements for your district by calling or visiting your local voter registration site, or visiting the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Web site.

Many states with such voter laws accept driver's licenses and 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.

02
of 05

Voter Registration Card

A sample 2018 voter registration card issued by the local government in El Paso, TX

El Paso County, TX

Most jurisdictions are required to issue voter registration cards every few years that show the name, address, polling place, and in some cases, the party affiliation of each voter. Make sure your voter registration card is up to date, and bring it with you when you plan to vote.

03
of 05

Important Phone Numbers

A sign instructs Floridians on where to vote in the 2012 primary

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Photo ID? Check. Voter registration card? Check. You might think you're good to go but you can still run into issues that can prevent you from successfully casting your ballot. Problems such as a lack of handicapped accessibility, no assistance for voters with limited English-language abilities, confusing ballots, and even having no privacy in the voting booth are the stuff of election day nightmares. Fortunately, there are channels through which Americans can report voting problems.

It's wise to check your county government's website for the phone number of your local elections office (or the blue pages if you still use a phone book). Should you run into any problems, call your board of elections or file a grievance. You can also speak to a judge of elections or other personnel on duty who can help you at the polling place.

04
of 05

Voters' Guide

Official voting information guides produced in California for the 2008 US general election

David McNew / Getty Images

Pay attention to your local newspaper in the days and weeks leading up to an election. Most of them publish voters' guides that contain bios of the candidates appearing on your local ballot and their party affiliation, as well as details of where they stand on issues important to you and your community.

Good-government groups including the League of Women Voters publish nonpartisan voters' guides that can help you make informed choices. As a U.S. citizen, you are allowed to carry such materials with you into the voting booth. A note of caution: Be wary of pamphlets published by partisan special-interest groups or political parties.

05
of 05

List of Polling Places

A voter casts her ballot in a voting booth during the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary in April 2012 in Philadelphia

Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

Even if you've proven you are who you say you are by showing valid identification, there's still a potential for problems at the polls. When you show up to vote, election workers are going to check your name against a list of voters registered at that polling place. What happens if your name isn't on it? Your polling location will be listed on your voter registration card. If you are in the right place and your name's not on the list, ask for a provisional ballot.

Or, what happens if you show up at what you believe to be the correct polling place only to be told, "Sorry, you're at the wrong location," or worse, that the polling location you've been voting at for years has been moved or eliminated? (Gerrymandering has greatly exacerbated this problem.)

If you find yourself in this situation, you may be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, however, it might be just as easy to get yourself to the appropriate polling place—provided you know where it is. Forewarned is forearmed. Be sure to get a current list of polling places before election day and share it with neighbors in your district, especially if your polling location has changed.