I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends about voting. I decided to write a short how-to-vote guide in response. I’ll go through four things:
Understanding the American democratic system
Understanding the process of voting
How to think strategically about voting
Expectations about what your vote does
I’m going to go through each of these quickly. Hopefully, this is a quick intro to voting in the US, with a little bit of guidance about how to think about politics right now. Yes, this guide is opinionated (vote for Democrats).
Two resources will be helpful. You should bookmark these, use them yourself, and share them widely.
The purpose of voting
The purpose of voting is to elect representatives to enact good policies and execute the laws in a just manner.
Personally liking your elected officials is nice, but this is not the primary goal of voting.
Ideally, Federal, state, and local governments would pass laws every year which make life better for you and your community. And the laws would be competently executed and enforced in a fair manner.
Who we vote for
We primarily vote for legislators and executives.
Legislators write the law. They usually have titles like Representative, Senator, Assemblyperson, or Councilperson.
Executives apply the law. They usually have titles like President, Mayor, or Governor.
When you are thinking about voting, remember that legislators do not have the power to apply the law, and that executives do not have the power to write laws. For instance, a city councilperson cannot by themselves direct the police to do something differently. That power usually resides with the mayor. However, the mayor usually cannot change the police funding model, that power usually resides with the city council.
The American government has three levels: Federal, state, and local. This means American democracy is complex. All three levels have important responsibilities.
National news pays most attention to the Federal level, such as the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The President executes the laws and the House and Senate pass the laws. These are very important.
However, state and local politics are incredibly important as well, and you have more say at the state and local levels. Do you care about ending private prisons? You can make progress at the state level. Do you care about universal health insurance? You can make progress at the state level (see Massachusetts). Do you care about housing and transit policy? Those are generally *local* issues decided by the city council and city zoning boards.
The complex structure of American democracy means different levels of government need to be targeted for different policies. This means that voting in Federal, state, and local elections are all important.
Primary and general elections
Primary elections are elections within a single party to figure out who the party will nominate in a given election. For instance, in 2020 the Democrats had a primary where Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden both ran strong campaigns. The two candidates were competing to be the Democratic nominee for president.
General elections are elections which decide who will be elected to fill a particular seat. On November 3, 2020, there is a general election which will elect the President, the House of Representatives, and 1/3 of the Senators.
Primary and general elections are both very important. Primaries are a debate of ideas, where parties figure out who they want to be. General elections are primarily a contest of Republicans vs Democrats.
Registering to vote
Most states in the US require people to register to vote. You can figure out how to do this in your state here. You only have to register once in a given state, and then you can vote in all future elections. However, you do have to update your voter registration if you change addresses. Some states may remove you from the voter rolls if you do not vote for a long period of time.
You should register as a Democrat so you can vote in Democratic primary elections. Many states have rules which only allow you to vote in the primary election of the party you are registered with. Registering as a Democrat does not mean you have to vote for Democrats.
If you are already registered, you can check the status of your voter registration easily online here.
There are lots of elections in the US. Every four years in November, we have an election where we vote for President, the House of Representatives, and 1/3 of the Senate all at once. 2020 is one of those years (November 3rd, 2020 is election day). Many states and towns (but not all) will also be holding their elections at this time.
In 2022 there are midterm elections. These happen two years after (and two years before) Presidential elections. The President does not run in midterms, but the House of Representatives and 1/3 of the Senate are up for election.
Many states and cities hold “off year” elections. For instance, New Jersey had gubernatorial elections in 2017, and will again in 2021. If you live in New Jersey, you will be voting for governor next in November of 2021.
General elections are usually in November. Primary elections are usually during the summer.
Voting for the first time (or any time) can be intimidating. There are often a ton of choices to make. You may have state or local propositions to vote on, such as legalizing marijuana or approving a bond for local schools. It’s a lot.
The best way is to be prepared by examining a sample ballot before you vote. You can do this at the helpful site Ballotpedia by entering your address. You can see sample ballots for all elections in the near future. It usually makes sense to spend a few minutes on the evening before the election making your decisions.
Many people have asked me specifically about state and local propositions. These are a chance for you to vote something directly into law. Florida extended voting rights to former felons via ballot proposition, for instance. Checking out a sample ballot will let you know which propositions are on your ballot, and local news sources will generally weigh in on the merits of each prop. In general, voting for things like school funding, marijuana legalization, extending voting rights, and science funding are good ideas. Ballotpedia has a list of ballot measures.
Voting strategy, an opinionated take
In the United States in 2020, you should adopt the following voting strategy: in the Democratic primary, you should vote for your favorite candidate. In the general election, you should vote for the Democrat.
This can be summed up as: elect Democrats, and elect better Democrats.
The reason is that the two parties in the United States are very different. The best way to see this is to look at what Democrats and Republicans do when they get power. Democrats pass bills to make society more equal, and Republicans pass bills to make society less equal.
To get more specific, when Democrats get power, they increase number of people with health insurance, pass good-for-climate and anti-pollution policies, expand education funding, and legalize marijuana (or at least put it on the ballot). Historically, the contemporary Democratic party (starting with FDR) is responsible for many programs people find useful: Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, civil rights legislation, Obamacare (pre-existing condition protections), banking regulation. Democrats fought both the Great Depression and Great Recession (and won World War II). You can even make a case that the economy is better under Democrats than Republicans. During COVID-19, it was the Democrats pushing for expanded unemployment insurance and more testing. That’s a pretty good list of accomplishments.
On the other side, when Republicans gain power, they tend to pass bills which make it harder to vote, harder to get a good education, harder to get health insurance, and harder to get government services like unemployment. At the Federal level, Republicans are hyper-focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy. A signature accomplishment of the Trump administration has been to make our air and water dirtier so politically-connected polluters can make more money. This is very bad. When someone tells you who they are, listen.
The reality is that the Democrats are much better than the Republicans even though Democrats are not perfect. This is why we need to participate in primary in addition to general elections: to make the Democrats better.
Finally, you should almost never vote third party. Perhaps in local or state elections where a third party candidate has a serious chance this can make sense. But third party protest votes are not useful. The reason is that Democratic governance is much better than Republican governance because the policies Democrats pass are better than the policies Republicans pass. Politics may change in the future, but right now it’s pretty simple.
When to expect results from voting
Government in the United States moves slowly. You should think of voting as a habit which will produce good results over a long period of time. It’s a lot like exercise: you shouldn’t expect to be in great shape after a single gym session. You need to stick to it, and over time it produces results.
This means voting in your Federal, state, and local elections—as well as the primaries.
However, unlike exercise, sometimes things do happen all at once. In November 2020, the Democrats have a real chance to retake the Presidency, the House, and the Senate. This would give them the ability to pass Federal laws, and the agenda is ambitious right now: expanding voting rights, expanding healthcare, making college education affordable; cutting down on pollution and the excesses of drug companies. In other words, now is a great time to start a voting habit.
Going beyond voting
Voting is a responsibility of citizens, but it’s far from the only one. Voting is a complement to protest, direct advocacy, donating, speaking out, attending local meetings, and talking with peers.
After you have registered to vote, checked your sample primary and general election ballot, and put the election dates on your calendar, you might ask: “what now?”
There are many wonderful local organizations you can get involved in. These include
Try out a group that sounds interesting to you. It’s much more important to show up once a month than to pick the “perfect” group. Lots of folks are doing good work out there.
If you’d like to donate in a way directly related to the 2020 election, consider the following: