I see you have questions about how elections work in the United States. Up until now, you probably haven’t thought much about how elections work and why someone’s experience in Massachusetts could be so different from yours in Alabama, or Florida, or Georgia, or Arkansas, or Montana, or Michigan, or Nevada, or California. You want to know why we’re not all doing the same things the same way. You want to know why there is no federal standard for ballot design or a national voting system. You want to fix things. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s lift the curtain a bit on how U.S. elections get done. That should help you be involved in the right way at the right time to make elections better. From the 40,000-foot level, elections look roughly the same from state to state. This might lead you to think that because we end up with one result that the way elections are administered is pretty much the same across the country. But it’s not. If you move from Washington State to New York State, your experience and the process for registering, getting access to a ballot, and actually marking the ballot will be different, from one to the other.
Let’s start with registering to vote. In most states, you have to fill out a form with your personal information to register to vote. But if you live in Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, you have same-day voter registration, where you can register and vote on Election Day. In Oregon, you have automatic voter registration — that is, if the state can tell by information it already has about you that you are age 18 or older, have established residency, and are a U.S. citizen, you’re automatically registered without having to do anything. If you live in North Dakota, you never had to register at all. In 1951, North Dakota decided to abolish voter registration and instead rely on neighbors to know who should and shouldn’t be voting.
Next, there’s voter ID. As of the presidential election in November 2016, 31 states required voters to show ID when they voted at a polling place. Sometimes, that’s a strict requirement – meaning you need a photo ID like a driver’s license; sometimes, it’s a little looser, requiring a voter card or even just a utility bill. But in 19 states and the District of Columbia, voters simply approach the registration table and declare their name and address to show they’ve registered, and then get a ballot.
What if you can’t get to the polling place on Election Day?Big variation here, too. For example, if you are registered to vote in Virginia but you can’t make it to the polls on Election Day, you must meet at least one of the 19 excuses that are codified in statute, and include evidence along with your application for an absentee ballot. (Yup! 19! Not 18! Not 20! 19 officially legislated excuses!)