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Registration & Voting FAQs

Below you will find answers to some common questions about registering and voting in any election. NU Votes also publishes more detailed education guides for major national and local elections.

Getting Started

Who can register and vote?
Why should I vote?
Where should I vote? Should I vote in Illinois or in my home state?

Registration

How do I know if or where I’m registered to vote?
What if my election authority says I’m not registered?
How can I register to vote?
How often do I need to register?
How can I change or update my registration with my current address?
What identification do I need to register?
What if I am from a U.S. territory?
What if I am studying abroad or out of the country? What if I am a military or overseas voter?

Voting

Where do I vote? Where is my polling place? When are the polls open?
Can I vote early?
Can I vote by mail?
How do I request an absentee ballot?
When will I receive my absentee ballot? How can I check on the status of my absentee ballot? What if I don’t receive my absentee ballot?
How do I return my absentee ballot? What if my ballot requires an ID copy, witness, or notary?
What identification do I need to vote? What can I take with me into the voting booth?
What if I don’t have my Voter Registration Card?
How can I receive voting reminders?
How can I make sure my ballot is counted?
What if I encounter a problem at the polls?
How can I vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Education & Engagement

What’s on my ballot?
How can I educate myself? How do I decide who to vote for?
Do I have to vote for every office on the ballot?
How can I get more involved?
How can I participate in elections if I’m not eligible to vote?
Other Questions?
Sources & Additional Resources


Getting Started


Who can register and vote?
You are eligible to vote in federal elections if you are a U.S. citizen and will be at least 18 years old on Election Day. You must be a resident of your state (sometimes for at least 30 days prior to Election Day) and meet your state’s requirements. Some states have restrictions on voting for people with felony convictions or who are mentally incapacitated. Learn more about your state’s requirements. In order to vote, you first must be registered.

Why should I vote?
Voting determines who has the power to make decisions that affect your life. Whatever you care about – policing, education, jobs, housing, immigration, climate change – who gets elected at the national and local level shapes the policies that are pursued. Young people often have the greatest stake in the outcomes of those decisions far into the future.

Voting is a way to translate your passions into action. Voting to select your elected officials makes it more likely they will represent you. It communicates your interests and priorities, and that you are paying attention and will hold them accountable.

Voting is a right that people fought and even died for, but that not everyone has or exercises. Yet many elections are decided by a very small number of votes. There are many ways to be civically engaged, but if you have the right, voting is an important place to start.

Where should I vote? Should I vote in Illinois or in my home state?
That’s completely up to you! As a student, you have the legal right to register and vote at either your campus address or your permanent address. You might want to weigh:
  • The place you most consider to be ‘home’ right now. For instance, where you feel more connected to your community, where you are more informed about local issues or follow local news and politics, or where you want to have a say in policy or in who represents you in elected office. This may change during the course of your college career.
  • How you prefer to vote. If you want to vote at a different address from where you are living, you will either need to return there to vote (during early voting or on Election Day), or request, receive, and return an absentee ballot to vote by mail. If you want to vote from the same address where you are living, you can vote in person (during early voting or on Election Day) at a polling place near you, or you can vote by mail.
  • Where you feel your vote will make the greatest impact. For instance, where you believe national or local elections may be most competitive.

 

Registration


How do I know if or where I’m registered to vote?
You can check your registration status through our online Check Registration Tool, or through your local election authority. (Choose your state, select US Domestic Voters and State Lookup Tools, then on the next page, look for a link next to ‘Where Is My Ballot?.’)

What if my election authority says I’m not registered?
If you registered recently, it often takes several weeks for registration requests to be processed. If you cannot confirm your registration from a previous year, simply re-register. If you have concerns about your registration, contact your local election authority.

How can I register to vote?
First, make sure there is still time to register before your state’s deadline. Some states close registration as much as 30 days in advance of an election, while others will allow you to register through Election Day. In some states, deadlines may vary depending on whether you are registering online, by mail, or in person. To view the registration deadlines for your state, see State Election Dates & Deadlines.

To register or update your registration in any state, use our online Voter Registration Tool.

In most states, registration can be done entirely online if you have an in-state driver’s license or state ID number. In some cases, you may need to print and mail a form to complete your registration. NU Votes can help with printing and mailing or other requirements. In most states, you can also register in person at your local election office.

How often do I need to register?
Registration typically does not expire. However, you must update your registration if your address, name, or signature has changed. If you don’t vote for several years, or your county sends you election mail that gets returned, you may be removed from the voter rolls, so it’s always a good idea to check to make sure your registration is current.

How can I change or update my registration with my current address?
To change or update your voter registration, simply re-register. In the registration form, there will be a space to list your previous registration address (or as much as you can remember). You may temporarily be registered in both places until you are removed from the voter rolls at your previous address. That’s okay; just be sure not to vote or request a ballot in both places!

What identification do I need to register?
If you are registering online or by mail, most states will request an in-state driver’s license or state ID number (do not use an out-of-state ID number), OR if you do not have one, the last four digits of your Social Security Number. Some states may request or require your full Social Security Number, or may request or require both a driver’s license or state ID number and the last four digits of your Social Security Number.

If you are registering in person, or if you are voting for the first time after registering by mail, you may be required to show ID, including something that proves your identity (a driver’s license, state ID, passport, birth certificate, or social security card) and something that shows your current address (postmarked mail, a utility bill, a bank or credit card statement, a pay stub, a lease or rental contract, etc.).

For more detail and help getting the IDs you need to register, see VoteRiders.

What if I am from a U.S. territory?
If you are a U.S. citizen, living in the U.S. to attend school, you have the option to register and vote at your campus address in Illinois or your permanent address in your territory. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you should register and vote in your territory.

Unfortunately, our standard forms and online tools will not work for U.S. territories, and many of the 50-states resources linked in this guide will not contain information specific to your territory. You can find upcoming election dates and deadlines and more information about how to register and vote in your territory in the US Vote Foundation’s State Voting Requirements & Information resource. You can also find links there to your territory’s board of elections website, where you can access registration and absentee ballot request forms. NU Votes can help with form completion, printing and mailing, or other questions.

What if I am studying abroad or out of the country? What if I am a military or overseas voter?
If you are a U.S. citizen living outside the U.S. (including students studying abroad) or an active duty service member, military spouse or dependent, there are special forms you should use. You can use the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to register and request your absentee ballot for your voting residence in any U.S. state or territory. In addition, if you request but do not receive your absentee ballot in time to return it by the appropriate deadline, you can vote using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAP) as a backup ballot. Learn more about who is eligible and how to determine your voting residence, and get answers to FAQs specific to your situation through the Federal Voting Assistance Program. NU Votes can help with form completion, printing and mailing, or other questions.

 

Voting

 

Where do I vote? Where is my polling place? When are the polls open?
To find your polling place, use the Polling Place Locator for your state. The location and hours of your polling place might vary depending on whether you are voting early or on Election Day.

To vote on Election Day, you must go to your assigned polling place. Polling places generally open between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and close between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. For the specific hours for your state, see Polling Place Hours by State.

Note that polling places are always subject to change, even on short notice, so be sure to double check the location just before you go to vote.

Can I vote early?
In most states, yes. Most states allow early voting (or in-person absentee voting), from 3 days up to 30 or even 45 days prior to each election. To view early voting options for your state, see this Early Voting Calendar by State.

Can I vote by mail?
In most states, yes. All states allow some form of vote by mail or absentee voting. A few states conduct their elections entirely by mail for all voters. Many states allow any voter to choose to vote by mail for any reason. Some states require voters to provide an excuse to vote absentee, but there will always be an excuse applicable to students living out of state (such as being a student by occupation, temporarily living or traveling outside the jurisdiction on Election Day, or being otherwise unavoidably absent or unable to make it to the polling place on Election Day). In most states, voters must request an Absentee Ballot for each election. Some states offer a permanent absentee ballot list; once a voter is added to this list, they will receive an absentee ballot for each election automatically.

To view absentee voting or vote by mail options for your state, see Absentee Ballot Rules by State.

How do I request an absentee ballot?
First, make sure there is still time to request an absentee ballot before your state’s deadline. Most states recommend submitting your absentee ballot request at least one month prior to the election. Some states will continue to accept absentee ballot requests one week prior or sometimes even less, though those deadlines do not always allow enough time to request, receive, and return your ballot. To view the ballot request deadline for your state, see State Election Dates & Deadlines.

To request an absentee ballot for any state, use our online Absentee Ballot Request Tool

.In some states, ballot requests can be submitted entirely online. However, in most states, you will need to print, complete, sign, and mail a form to complete the process. NU Votes can help with printing and mailing or other requirements, such as copies of IDs or witness or notary services. Ballot requests can also be submitted in person, and sometimes by phone, fax, or email.

You should submit your request as early as possible to receive your ballot on time. If it is less than 30 days before Election Day, call your local election office and ask if you can submit your request by phone, fax, or email.

Once you submit your request, you will be mailed a paper ballot to the address you chose, to complete, sign, and return. In some cases, you may be able to download a ballot, or receive one via fax or email.

Note that some states that vote entirely by mail automatically mail ballots to all registered voters. In these states, if you are already registered to vote at your current address, and that is where you want your ballot to be mailed, you will not need to submit a request form. If you have recently registered or updated your registration, or you want your ballot to be mailed to a different address, you will still need to submit a request form. Review the Absentee Ballot Rules for your state to determine whether you need to submit a request form.

When will I receive my absentee ballot? How can I check on the status of my absentee ballot? What if I don’t receive my absentee ballot?
Absentee ballots are typically mailed 30–45 days before Election Day, and then on an ongoing basis as requests are processed, which can take several weeks. To check your state’s timeline, see When States Mail Absentee Ballots.

If you have requested an absentee ballot but have not yet received one, and it is past that timeline, contact your local election authority to confirm that they received your absentee ballot application and verify there were no errors in processing.

Some states will allow you to track your absentee ballot online. At this State Voting Information site, choose your state, select US Domestic Voters and State Lookup Tools, then on the next page, look for a link next to ‘Where Is My Ballot?.’ If your state does not offer an online tool, find the contact information for your local election authority and contact them directly via phone or email.

If you live on campus, note that mail can sometimes take a bit longer to make its way through the campus mail system. Remember to check your mailbox regularly. You also might want to check with staff in the mail room and at the package center.

If you run into trouble (e.g. your local election authority did not receive your ballot request, or there was a problem with it, or they mailed you a ballot but you did not receive it), your local election authority should be able to help you identify some alternative options, which will vary by state. There may still be time to submit a new request, especially if you can do so via phone, fax, or email. Or you may be able to vote in person, during early voting or on Election Day, if that is an option for you.

How do I return my absentee ballot? What if my ballot requires an ID copy, witness, or notary?
Completed absentee ballots can typically be returned by mail or in person, or sometimes in special ballot drop boxes. Some states may allow ballots to be returned by fax or email. Your ballot should provide instructions on how, where, and when to return it.

To return your absentee ballot via mail, simply drop your stamped or postage-paid envelope in the nearest USPS mailbox. On the Evanston Campus, mailboxes are available on the corners of Colfax and Sheridan, Foster and Sheridan, and Hinman and Sheridan. See our mailing tips to find mailbox and post office locations near you, guidance if you are mailing close to the deadline, and more.

In most states, absentee ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day; however, some states may have slightly earlier deadlines, and some states may continue to accept absentee ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. To view the absentee ballot deadlines for your state, see State Election Dates & Deadlines. You are encouraged to return your ballot at least one week prior to Election Day to ensure it is received on time.

NU Votes can help with stamps, mailing, or other requirements, such as copies of IDs or witness or notary services, at any of our in-person voter services stations. NU Votes Dropboxes are not intended for ballot return.

What identification do I need to vote? What can I take with me into the voting booth?
Most states request or require some form of ID in order to vote, either for all voters, or only those who registered by mail and are voting for the first time at their current registration address. As a result, while it may not be required, we recommend bringing ID (including a current photo ID and proof of address) when you go to vote. For the specific rules for your state, see Voter ID Requirements by State. For help getting the IDs you need to vote, see VoteRiders.

As a general rule, you are allowed to bring notes or sample ballots with you into the voting booth and to look up information on your phone. However, in some states, you are NOT allowed to take photos of your ballot or inside the polling place.

What if I don’t have my Voter Registration Card?
You do NOT need your Voter Registration Card to vote. However, you must be registered. Make sure to verify your registration status online through our online Check Registration Tool, or through your local election authority.

How can I receive voting reminders?
If you use any of our online voter services tools, Vote.org will automatically send important election information, deadlines, and voting reminders via email and text. NU Votes may send occasional email updates as well. (You can unsubscribe from these at any time.) To sign up to receive voting reminders separately, use our Election Reminders tool.

How can I make sure my ballot is counted?
First, make sure to register to vote or check or update your registration well in advance of your state’s deadline.

If you are voting by mail, request your ballot well in advance of your state’s deadline (typically at least one month prior to Election Day), and check to make sure your request was received and your ballot is on the way. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully on your ballot request form as well as on the ballot and ballot envelope. Complete all fields, and review the instructions for any additional materials needed, such as an ID copy or witness or notary signature. Make sure to sign in all places required, and make sure your signature matches the signature on file with your voter registration. Finally, return your ballot well in advance of your state’s deadline (typically, at least one week before the deadline). 

In some states, you can check online to confirm that your ballot was received and will be counted. At this State Voting Information site, choose your state, select US Domestic Voters and State Lookup Tools, then on the next page, look for a link next to ‘Where Is My Ballot?’ or ‘Has My Ballot Been Counted?.’ If your state does not offer an online tool, you can contact your local election authority directly via phone or email.

If you are voting in person, be sure to bring proper IDs (including proof of identity and proof of address). Make sure your signature matches the signature on file with your voter registration. Follow the instructions carefully as you complete and submit your ballot.

What if I encounter a problem at the polls?
If you or others encounter issues at a polling place or barriers to voting, contact the National Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. If your voter registration cannot be found or your eligibility to vote is challenged, you should still be able to vote a provisional ballot, which will be reviewed after Election Day to determine if your vote can still be counted.

How can I vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic?
You might want to consider voting by mail if you have the option, as it is generally contactless. If you are voting in person, you might want to consider voting early if you have the option, to avoid lines and crowds at polling places on Election Day. Research your ballot ahead of time to minimize your time in the polling place. Whenever you vote, you should be sure to wear a mask, remain 6 feet apart from others, and wash your hands before and after you vote.

 

Education & Engagement

What’s on my ballot?
You can typically view a sample ballot through your local election authority. Choose your state, select US Domestic Voters and State Lookup Tools, then on the next page, look for a link next to ‘Can I View My Sample Ballot?.’

Or use a resource like BallotReady or Ballotpedia to view a sample ballot and research detailed, nonpartisan information on candidate profiles and positions at the same time.

How can I educate myself? How do I decide who to vote for?
There are lots of great resources that help you preview what’s on your ballot and research detailed, nonpartisan information on each candidate’s profiles and positions. (Note that these sites are typically up to date for major national and state elections, but may not have current or detailed information for local elections.) Here are some of our favorites:

  • BallotReady
    Enter your address and go to Research Ballot in the Election Center.  You’ll be able to preview each office and question on your ballot. You’ll see all the candidates running for each office,  and can learn about their backgrounds, where they stand on key issues, endorsements received, and more. For ballot measures, you can review the arguments for and against. Then you can save your selections and print or email your ballot to yourself to bring with you to vote.
  • Ballotpedia
    Enter your address and choose the election. You’ll be able to preview each office and question on your ballot and the candidates running for each office. Ballotpedia sometimes includes more information on candidates, especially those who have previously served in national elected office, including legislation supported or votes on key issues, past election results, analyses of campaign donations, voting records, personal gains from serving in office, and more. You cannot save your selections, but you can record them in another way to bring with you to vote.
  • WeVote
    WeVote allows you to choose issues you care about, values you hold, and organizations and people you trust. Then you can see a personal score for each candidate on your ballot, based on their connection to those issues and values and endorsements they’ve received from your trusted sources. You can save your choices, and share them with friends and family.

Here are some additional ways you can educate yourself and decide who to vote for:

  • Check out non-partisan student-oriented voter guides on key candidates and issues from the Campus Elections Engagement Project.
  • If you’re not sure where you fall on the political spectrum or whether you align with a particular party, try taking a quiz. The Pew Research Center Political Typology Quiz is one popular one.
  • Review candidates’ websites and watch candidate debates and forums to hear what the candidates themselves have to say.
  • Check your favorite local news media – they typically have candidates complete questionnaires on where they stand on key issues, and editorial boards often make endorsements.
  • If there is an issue you care about, check whether national or local advocacy organizations are endorsing or supporting candidates.
  • If you identify with a political party or national or local political organization, they typically endorse or support a slate of candidates.
  • If you are voting to elect or retain judges, local bar associations often make recommendations.

Do I have to vote for every office on the ballot?
No! If you don’t feel sufficiently informed about a particular office, set of candidates, or issue, or you don’t want to vote for any of the candidates, you can choose to leave that category blank. This does not invalidate your ballot – your other selections will still be counted.

How can I get more involved?
To get further involved in an election you care about, you can:

  • Double or triple your vote (or more) by getting friends in your network to commit to vote. Help them make their voting plan, and send them reminders to make sure they follow through.
  • Volunteer for a candidate’s campaign, on behalf of a political party, issue advocacy organization, or nonprofit voter engagement organization.
  • Work the polls! Review the qualifications and pay and apply to become a poll worker in your state at WorkElections.com.

You can also explore additional opportunities for civic engagement beyond voting.

In major national election seasons, consider becoming an NU Votes Ambassador. Join our mailing list to learn about future opportunities (select Interested in NU Votes).

How can I participate in elections if I’m not eligible to vote?
Great question! There are many ways to be civically engaged beyond voting. You might also want to learn more about the programs and services offered by the Center for Civic Engagement.

Other Questions?
The NU Votes staff and student team is standing by to help! Email nuvotes@northwestern.edu. Or stop in to our drop-in hours via Zoom or in person at the Center for Civic Engagement. If you have additional questions or need more specific guidance, contact your local election authority.

Sources & Additional Resources
BallotReady – Sample Ballots & Voter Guides (All 50 States)
Ballotpedia – Election & Voting Information, Sample Ballots & Voter Guides (All 50 States)
Vote411 – Sample Ballots & Voter Guides (All 50 States)
Vote.org – Registration & Voting Information (All 50 States)
National Association of Secretaries of State – Election & Voting Information (All 50 States)
National Conference of State Legislators – Election & Voting Information (All 50 States)
US Vote Foundation – Election & Voting Information (All 50 States)

Please note: The information here was compiled from publicly available sources in an effort to help provide students with non-partisan information that they may need to know in order to register correctly and vote in upcoming elections. Northwestern University does not endorse or oppose any candidate or organization in connection with this or any other political campaign or election. Students are responsible for working with their own local election officials to ensure their own correct registration and to verify local laws and policies about voting in their respective districts.