Your voice matters, yet too many young voices go unheard at the ballot box. During the last presidential election, less than half of voters ages 18-29 actually voted. Voting is crucial, especially if you plan to work in higher education or a public sector in which your job is impacted by public policy. But even though voting is important, many students aren’t sure how to do so while living away from their home state or struggle to fit voting into their busy schedules.
In this guide, we’ll cover all you need to know about voting. We’ll also answer the most commonly asked questions about student voting, including how to register if you’re not a resident of the state your university is located in and what your absentee voting options are.
How to Become a Voter
We’ve all seen our friends and family posting their election day selfies at the ballot box, proudly wearing their “I Voted” stickers as a point of pride. But first things first: How exactly do you register to vote? The voter registration process should be easy, but given your classes, research, study sessions, and other commitments, you may be struggling to find the time to register. Luckily, there are six easy steps to become a voter: registering, deciding on party affiliation, researching upcoming elections, learning about issues on the ballot, deciding on how you’ll vote, and casting the ballot before the deadline. Let’s discuss each step in more detail.
Register to Vote
You must register with your state in order to vote. Each state has a different registration process, so it’s best to check with your state’s election department. If you’re unsure how to access a state election department’s website, Vote.gov is a free tool that can guide you through the process. If you want to vote in an upcoming election, make sure to pay attention to voter registration deadlines. Some states, such as South Carolina, have early deadlines that require voters to register at least 30 days before an election. Other states, like Illinois, allow you to register the day of the election. (Not sure whether you should register in your home state or the state where you attend college? Keep reading, we’ll cover that below.)
Decide on Your Party
When you register to vote, you have the option to affiliate with a political party. Party affiliation means you can vote in their primaries. The two main parties in the United States are the Republicans and Democrats, though smaller parties like the Green party and the Libertarian party exist too. You can also choose to remain independent of any party affiliation.
Research Your State and Local Races
Once you’ve registered, it’s time to research what’s on your ballot. You can do this by going to your state election board’s website and then doing independent research on each candidate on your ballot. When researching candidates and issues, make sure to keep in mind the potential bias of your sources. If the information is coming from the candidate themselves, a political action committee, or a political party, it will be geared to swaying your vote.
Learn About the Issues on the Ballot
Along with voting for candidates you may have to vote on specific issues, such as whether or not to pass a local school levy. Search your state or city’s website to learn about local and state issues on your ballot, once again keeping in mind the potential bias of any sources you use.
Find your polling place or obtain a mail-in ballot: Once you’ve researched your options, it’s time to decide if you want to vote via mail-in ballot, in-person early voting, or on election day. Your state should send you snail mail or an email outlining each option. Make sure to pay attention to the deadline for voter registration and requesting a mail-in ballot. Some states require both to be submitted weeks before the election.
Cast Your Ballot on Time
Once you have chosen your voting option (mail-in, absentee, or in-person), make sure to show up on election day or send in your mail-in ballot before the election. If you’re voting early, add the early voting dates to your calendar and set a calendar reminder to make sure your ballot is on time. Find a voting buddy and plan to go to the polls together if you’re in the same district or to text one another a reminder to vote.
Voting Logistics While Earning a Master’s Degree
For students, one of the most confusing logistics questions is where they should register to vote. Let’s say you attend school in Pennsylvania, but your family is from Indiana and that’s where you’ve always voted. All states let you register in the state where you attend school or let you maintain registration in your home state, even while attending school somewhere else. That means in our theoretical example, you could choose to vote in Pennsylvania or Indiana, depending on personal preference.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the pros and cons of each scenario:
If you’re voting and attending school in the same state, you simply need to register to vote normally. After that, you either mail-in your ballot or go to vote on election day or an early voting day. As is the case for all voters, make sure you know the deadline to vote and to register so that your opinion can sway the next election. Remember that you’ll be assigned to a specific polling place, so if your school is many miles from your home address, you may need to request an absentee ballot.
If you’re an out-of-state student you have two options: keep voting in your home state or vote in the state where you attend school. If you vote in the state where you attend school, you most likely will have to change your permanent residence to that state. Make sure to check the guidelines of the state you want to register in before heading to the polls. For example, North Carolina recommends switching voter registration if a student intends to stay in North Carolina (instead of returning to their home state) after graduating. On the flip side, if you decide to vote in your home state be aware that you may have difficulty getting your ballot. Some states, like Ohio, require that all mail-in ballots be sent to an in-state address.
All voters must have US citizenship. If you’re an American studying abroad, you can vote through the State Department. Check out their guidelines on how absentee ballots abroad work. It’s important to note that when you’re a US citizen abroad, your vote is not counted in state and local elections because you’re not registered to vote in any specific state. Additionally, international absentee ballots are usually only counted if there’s a tie in federal elections, such as the presidential race.
Why Your Vote Matters
Your vote matters–possibly even more than you think. When you vote, you’re actively shaping the policies around you. Depending on how you vote, you could impact gun control legislation, the right to gay marriage, access to resources for veterans, taxes, and more. If you don’t vote, you don’t have a say in how policies are shaped around contentious topics that affect your life or that you care about. Instead, you’re leaving those issues in the hands of others.
No matter how you feel on any of these topics, it’s important to express your opinions in federal, state, and local elections. While your schedule may already be way too full, if you’re part of these groups or want to support these groups your vote matters now more than ever:
From student loan forgiveness to funding research programs at public universities, there’s a lot on the ballots that can impact your future. Consider voting for candidates who value affordable, easy access to education as much as you do. To learn more about how a candidate stands on issues that impact students, check out their website, social media, and recent interviews. Candidates in favor of student interests most likely support issues such as student loan forgiveness, funding university research programs, and higher pay for educators. If a candidate doesn’t mention this information in their public communication, email or call their campaign office to learn where they stand.
The rights of many LGBTQIA+ people are under attack by some political movements that want to get rid of the right to gay marriage and to be openly transgender in public. If you’re a part of this group or an ally, it’s especially important to vote for people who share your values. You can most likely determine where a candidate stands on these issues based on what they put on their website as well as any social media posts, such as a TikTok or reel celebrating Pride month. Candidates who are allied with the LGBQTIA+ community most likely support gay marriage, expanding trans rights, and stopping hate crimes against trans women.
Many women feel their bodily autonomy is being attacked due to a recent Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to abortion. If you feel this way as well, it’s important to voice your concern by voting for candidates who vote in favor of women’s rights. On the flip side, if you believe abortion should be banned, you’ll want to vote for candidates who support this stance. To find out what a candidate thinks about different women’s rights issues, from abortion to domestic violence, you can search their campaign website and look at local, unbiased new sources. Because women’s issues are so contentious right now, a candidate will most likely state where they stand on specific issues that affect those who identify as female.
From voting to policing, many public policies disproportionately affect minority voters. If you’re part of this group or want to see policies in favor of protecting the rights of minorities, you can voice your opinion at the ballot box. To discover where a candidate stands on different issues that affect minorities, such as the movement to install cameras in police cars, look on their website or recent interviews. You can also look at which organizations have endorsed them. If a local NAACP chapter, indigenous rights group, or Latinx organization has endorsed them, they most likely support the rights of the group who gave the endorsement.
Voters with Disabilities
If you’re a voter with disabilities or an advocate for those with disabilities, it’s important to vote for candidates who share similar views. Disabilities can cover everything from mental health to learning disabilities to physical disabilities–and it can be tricky to know where a candidate stands on all these issues. If you’re unsure, email or call their campaign office to get more information.
Military and Veterans
If you or a loved one is in the military or is a veteran, public policy impacts your pay, benefits, and more. Before going to the ballot box, research where a candidate stands on supporting the military and veterans. Candidates in favor of these groups might discuss proposed military budgets or ways to enhance the Veterans Administration or have endorsements from veteran’s groups in their local area.
A Crash Course on the Election Process
The United States election process can be complicated; you’ll most likely experience differences in rules between different states and local communities in your quest to vote during grad school.
As a United States voter, you have the right to vote in an annual election in November. What’s on the ballot changes every time, though. Presidential elections occur every four years, and they grab a lot of the headlines. You’ll also be voting for Congressional representatives (both the House of Representatives and Senate) and governor, along with local elections and referendums.
Before you vote, it’s important to brush up on the election process, from the primaries to referendums and run-offs. Here are some important election terms to know:
A caucus is when a political group meets to discuss their opinions about the candidates running for office. By the end of the caucus, the organization has a chosen candidate. This is a measure used by some states instead of a primary election in which each voter gets to vote. The most famous caucus is the Iowa caucus, but Nevada, North Dakota, American Samoa, Wyoming, Guam, and the Virgin Islands also have caucuses.
Before the general election (which takes place in November), each political party hosts a primary election. The date of these elections varies by state, but the process is similar. If you’re a registered voter affiliated with a specific party, you can vote for which candidate you want to run in the general election. In some states such as North Carolina, voters who choose not to be affiliated with a specific party can select which party’s primary election they want to vote in.
After the results from the primaries are in, the two main political parties host conventions. At this convention, the candidates and other leaders in the party give speeches about what they would like to accomplish. For example, the Republicans hosted a national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Democrats held one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, prior to the 2020 presidential election.
After primaries are over and each party has chosen their front-runners, it’s time for the general election. The general election happens each November–and it’s important to vote annually, as local policies and candidates affect your day-to-day life. Every four years, the general election determines who will be the next president of the United States. The general election is hosted on the second Tuesday of November, though early voting and mail-in ballots are also an option. Before voting in the general election, make sure to research what candidates and issues are on your ballot. Going into a general election informed on what and who you’re voting for helps you make the best choices possible.
During a presidency, the midterm elections are generally seen as an indication of how the country feels about the president’s political party. Midterms occur two years after the presidential election. On the midterm ballot, voters find candidates for the House of Representatives (elected for two years), Senate (elected for six years), and governor (term lengths vary). The types of races on the ballot will be different in each state. For example, in the 2022 midterms Michigan and Maine didn’t have any Senate candidates up for election and North Dakota and Kentucky didn’t have gubernatorial races.
When there’s a big political issue that must be decided, states have the option to call a referendum. A referendum can be called at any time and only focuses on one issue, such as legalizing medical marijuana or criminal justice reform. Referendums are quite rare and up to the discretion of the state government. A recent example includes Kansas’s referendum on abortion. In August of 2022, state legislators let all registered voters vote yes or no on adding an amendment to the state constitution that would make abortion illegal. Other states, such as Montana and California, added abortion referendums to the midterm ballot instead of hosting a separate election.
Voter FAQs for Students
Still have questions about the voting process? Check out the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions by student voters, including if you can miss class to vote and how you can make voting a priority despite your packed schedule.
Q. What is early voting?
A. Early voting refers to voting before the election day, which is usually the second Tuesday in November. Given how demanding your class schedule is, early voting can help you squeeze in a trip to the polls at a time that is better for your schedule. Depending on your state, you might have several options on how to vote early, including mail-in ballots and going to your local election office on specific dates to vote. These dates vary by state, so it’s important to check with your local election office about early voting dates. In the last election, Ohio voters could vote early on select weekdays from October 12 to November 7; Texas voters could vote 12 days before the election; and early voting dates in California differed by county.
Q. How can I make sure that my mail-in ballot is counted?
A. In order for your mail-in ballot to be counted, you must meet the deadline. Usually, the deadline is mailing the ballot a week before the election, but this varies from state to state. If you can’t get it in by the date, some states let you bring in the ballot on election day.
Q. Where do I vote if I am attending college out-of-state?
A. You can choose where to vote, whether in your home state or the state where you currently attend college. Both options have pros and cons. If you decide to register in your home state, your mail-in ballot could be sent to your parents’ address (if you live in a state where you have to send your ballot to an address in that state) and then they can send it to you. If that’s not an option or if you intend to live permanently in the state where you attend school, you may want to change your state registration to your school’s state.
Q. Does where I register to vote impact my financial aid or in-state or out-of-state tuition status?
A. Where you register may affect if you can get in-state tuition status. Check with your school’s (and the state’s) requirements to qualify for in-state tuition. Often, getting in-state tuition is more intensive than simply switching where you’re registered to vote. It usually includes paying taxes in that state, having a property in that state, and/or living there for a certain amount of time. Again, make sure to check with your specific school and state as in-state tuition requirements vary greatly.
Q. Where do I go to vote?
A. In most states you can either vote from home with a mail-in ballot or go vote in person. For early voting, you’ll go to your local election board’s office or to a designated polling place. For day-of voting, you’ll vote at your assigned local precinct. Most precincts are housed in a community center, place of worship, or school near you so you can squeeze in a trip to the polls between classes or during lunch. Check the voting hours; they may be different from the hours in your home state.
Q. Can I miss class or work to vote?
A. This depends on your university’s, professors, and/or workplace’s policies. There is no legal obligation for universities or workplaces to give workers and students time off for voting, so you shouldn’t assume you can skip class or work. With that being said, some universities and employers do allow students to miss class or part of a work shift since voting is a civic duty.
Q. How can I get involved in the election process?
A. Voting is the easiest way to get involved. If you’d like to get even more involved, volunteer with a local political candidate, work as a poll worker, or volunteer at the local election board. The opportunities will vary, so check with local political organizations and the board of elections for more information.
Resources for Student Voters
Before, during, and after you vote, there are plenty of free resources to take advantage of. Some are more general and help you understand the logistics of voting in your state. Others are specifically tailored to help make voting as quick and easy as possible for student voters. Check out some of our favorites:
- Campus Vote Project This nonprofit helps students stay informed on local, state, and federal politics as well as providing resources to make it as easy as possible to vote as a student.
- Determine your Voter Residency This free guide from the Federal Voting Assistance Program walks you through where to vote if you’re in the military, a military dependent, or living or studying abroad.
- Electoral College The Electoral College is the subject of endless debate. If you’re interested in learning more about how the electoral college works and why the United States adopted it in the first place, check out this guide from NPR.
- Political Parties Get the history on political parties with this guide from the Library of Congress.
- Rock the Vote Check out this step-by-step guide on how to vote in your state.
- Student Vote This national nonprofit has offices in every state with one simple mission: to make it as easy as possible for student voters to get to the ballot box.
- Vote.gov This free tool created by the federal government guides you through the voter registration process for your state.
- Vote411. Before completing your next ballot, enter your district or zip code into Vote411’s search engine to learn who’s on your ballot, where your polling place is, and how you can attend upcoming political debates and forums.
- Voter Checklist The League of Women Voters created this voting checklist aimed specifically at first-time and student voters.
- Voting Abroad If you’re getting your degree abroad, you can vote through the State Department. Their website outlines how to do this as well as the requirements to be considered a US citizen abroad.
- Voting for the First Time This handy guide walks you through all the steps first-time voters should take to make sure their voice is heard on election day.