Pulitzer Center Update August 4, 2020
What You Should Know About Voting, Frequently Asked Questions
On Thursday, August 6, 2020, journalist Brittany Gibson speaks about voter suppression and related issues with attorney Tori Wenger, a Skadden Fellow for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Dr. Brenda C. Williams, a community advocate working in Sumter, SC. To coincide with the webinar and Gibson's reporting on the topic, including for The American Prospect, the following frequently asked questions were compiled regarding elections and voting more broadly, including links to further resources.
How do I vote?
In the United States, elections are held on federal, state, and local levels. Rules surrounding voting can differ from state to state, but if you have any questions or concerns regarding how to vote you can contact your local or state board of elections. You also can visit https://www.eac.gov, where you will reach the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Finally, you can contact the Election Protection coalition at https://866ourvote.org/ or 866-OUR-VOTE, or visit the other resources listed below.
These resources provide ways to find basic voting information regarding how to vote in your state:
How do I locate my polling place?
What ID is needed in my state?
What is the difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting?
How do I vote using an absentee ballot? How do I vote early?
If you are unsure about your eligibility to vote within the United States, you can still vote using a provisional ballot where your vote will be counted once your eligibility is verified. For more information on provisional ballots in your state, see this resource:
What is a bipartisan resource where I can see what a candidate’s platform is and where they stand on issues?
Two great resources that provide bipartisan information about candidates’ platforms are:
What does designating a specific party affiliation when I register mean for my vote?
The first step to voting is to register. Each state has its own requirements, but most states allow you to register online, in person, or using a mail-in form. When registering, you may have the option to declare your political party affiliation on your voter registration form. Declaring your affiliation means you state whether you affiliate with the Republican Party, Democratic Party, Green Party, etc. Even if you declare your party affiliation, you do not have to vote for that party in federal, state, or local general elections. However, some states require that in primary or caucus elections you vote for a candidate from the political party you registered with.
To see your state’s rules on voting in primary elections, you can use this resource: https://www.fairvote.org/primaries#congressional_primary_type_by_state
Once you’re in the voter booth, the ballot will have the candidates listed according to their political party affiliation, if they have one. Smaller, local elections often will have candidates that do not associate with one party or another.
What local positions are usually elected?
There are many local positions that are elected, and these differ based on what city, town, or county you belong to. Some of the most commonly elected local county positions are:
County Commissioners: A group of three to five commissioners that are collectively in charge of organizing services for the county. Services can include road and bridge maintenance, public welfare, tax assessment and collection, and law enforcement. They also collect input from county residents.
County Judge: A county judge interprets and applies the state and local law by overseeing legal proceedings in local court. Examples of issues that a county judge can oversee are pretrial hearings, administrative disputes, mediations between opposing parties, and civil disputes.
County and District Clerks: Clerks keep records for the county or district, including records such as deeds, policies, ordinances etc.
County Treasurer: County treasurers control the monetary transactions between residents and the county. They send tax bills and collect the payments, which they will then distribute to various county agencies.
Sheriff: Unlike the local police department, a county sheriff is a constitutionally mandated position in charge of the maintenance of law and order for their entire county. Sheriff’s offices have jurisdictions that often extend across local boundaries within a county, while local police are instead employed by specific cities, villages, and townships. The jurisdiction of local police ends with the city’s, village’s, or township’s boundaries.
Some of the most commonly elected city positions are:
Mayor: Organizes the general management of the city, including enforcing city laws and ordinances. They can also perform administrative duties such as signing in resolutions passed by city council and advising city council.
City Council: City Council enforces the ordinances and resolutions of the city. The council is made up of many individuals, who approve and award city spending, and approve the city budget.
City Controller: The City Controller is in charge of the cities’ finance including reporting on the cities’ finances, approving finances for public improvement, disbursing finances from the city, and maintaining finances entering the city. It also conducts internal audits of the city’s departments.
You can use https://www.usa.gov/election-office to find what local elections are occurring in your state, and for more information regarding those elections.
What are the commonly elected positions at the state levels?
There are three branches of government, each which have elected officials at the state levels. Puerto Rico operates similar to the states.
Within the judicial branch, you can elect judges in state courts who will interpret state laws and oversee state legal proceedings. Depending on your state, you might also be able to elect your trial and appellate court judges. To find out which judges you can elect in your state, and how many positions are up for election, you can use this resource: https://ballotpedia.org/State_judicial_elections,_2020.
Within the legislative branch, there are state legislatures that will put laws into place that apply to their state. Citizens in each state can vote for a state official for both the Senate and House of Representatives. For more information regarding legislative elections in your state, use this resource: https://ballotpedia.org/State_legislative_elections,_2020.
Within the executive branch there is a governor of each state. The territory of Puerto Rico also has a governor. The governor maintains oversight of the state budget, the state executive leaders, and state policy. They can also enact an executive order if there is an issue pertaining to state security, and will communicate with the federal government regarding federal monetary assistance. They work with the state legislature to establish laws and long-term goals of the state. For more information regarding executive elections in your state, you can use this resource: https://ballotpedia.org/State_executive_official_elections,_2020.
In Washington, D.C., a mayor operates in the chief executive position, functioning as both governor and mayor of the district.
These are helpful resources for more information on elected offices:
What is voter suppression? What do I do if I witness/incur forms of voter suppression with my vote or at my polling place?
Voter suppression occurs when certain individuals are denied their right to vote, whether intentionally or not, resulting in an election outcome being influenced. Methods of voter suppression include restrictive voter identification laws, restrictions on voter registration, voter purges, and denying individuals with felonies the right to vote.
Voter purges are the unprompted mass removal of eligible voters from registration lists. These all create barriers to certain groups being able to vote. There also are forms of voter intimidation that discourage voter participation, including the presence of police at polling stations, or questioning the citizenship of non-English speaking individuals at polling stations.
Finally, there are regulatory barriers that can make it difficult for individuals to vote. Not allowing write-in ballots, not allowing same-day voter registration, and not providing enough adequate voting locations within a city are examples of some of these barriers.
If you witness or incur forms of voter suppression, many of which are felonies within the United States, there are resources available for you to use.
These resources have more information regarding what voter intimidation is, and who to contact if you witness voter intimidation.
If you think someone is interfering with your right to vote, see this resource:
Again, you can contact the Election Protection coalition via its website https://866ourvote.org/ or by calling 866-OUR-VOTEif you have any voting questions or concerns.