In all U.S. states except North Dakota, you need to apply for a voter registration card to vote in upcoming elections. It serves as proof that you meet the eligibility requirements to vote in your state and often includes important information, such as your party and polling place.
The process to register to vote in your state may be different from the process in other states. In some states, you can apply online while other states require mail-in or in-person applications. It is also important to keep in mind voter registration deadlines in 2020. These also depend on the state, but deadlines usually fall 15 to 30 days before Election Day.
Knowing if you are eligible to vote is the first step for how to vote in almost every state. Attempting to get around registration rules to vote in an election is a felony and punishable by law.
You can learn more about the registration process by reviewing the sections below. However, if you want a more detailed overview with a checklist and detailed steps, skip the sections and download our free voter’s guide.
Who can vote in U.S. elections?
Before you try to register to vote online or by mail, you need to review your eligibility to vote. Only U.S. citizens who are at least 18 years of age can vote in local, state and national elections.
This includes citizens who are currently living overseas and military service members who are on active duty in a foreign country. Noncitizens, such as legal permanent residents, cannot vote.
Beyond citizenship, some states have additional requirements on who can vote in primaries and general elections. For instance, depending on your state, you may also be prohibited from voting if:
- You have a felony on your record and your voting rights have not been restored.
- You have been deemed “mentally incapacitated.”
How to Register to Vote
The process for how to register as a voter will depend on the state in which you live. In states like California, West Virginia and Hawaii, you can submit your voter registration application online. However, in Wyoming and New Hampshire, you must register in person or by mail.
In 38 states plus the District of Columbia (DC), you can submit an online voter registration. The first step involves identifying which department handles voter ID registrations. In some states, the secretary of state office oversees the process. In others, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) helps to facilitate voting registration.
To submit your application, you must provide personal information, including your:
- Full name.
- Date of birth.
- Social Security Number (SSN).
After filling out the form, be sure to double-check your information. Submitting an application with errors will delay your approval and may keep you from voting in upcoming elections.
In some states, you can complete and submit your voter registration form at your local election office. You may also be able to do so at military recruitment centers and government assistance offices.
Depending on the state, you may be able to obtain the form at the election office or have to print it out from a website.
If you are currently living overseas, you may need to submit your application by mail to your local election office. If you are unable to find state-specific information about how to vote or how to register, you can use the national mail-in form. It will require providing the same type of information and is accepted by local election offices.
If you will still be out of state by Election Day, you can vote by mail using an absentee ballot. The absentee voting process allows you to vote early if you are unable to make it to the polls in person. In some states, you must provide an excuse to qualify for absentee voting while in others, you can simply request one.
How to Update Your Registration
If you are already registered to vote, you may need to update voter registration documents due to a name, address or gender change. It is important that your voter registration card reflect your most current information. If you do not change your voter registration, you may be unable to vote when heading to the polls.
When changing your voting address or another piece of personal information, you must first see which methods are available in your state. Typically, there are four ways to update: online, in person, by phone and in person.
Once you have identified your options, it is just a matter of gathering the proof to support the request. For instance, if changing your legal name, you may need to provide proof of the name change to update your voter registration card.
If you have not yet registered to vote or need to update your current registration, you will need to know the last day to register to vote. Once this date has passed, you may not be able to vote in the upcoming election and will need to wait until the next election cycle.
There are generally two types of deadlines: one for primary elections and another for general elections. Furthermore, the method you use to register will also determine your deadline. For instance, you will likely have an earlier deadline if you are registering by mail versus online. This is also the case for citizens who are currently overseas.
The voter registration deadlines for 2020 vary from state to state. It can range between 15 to 30 days before Election Day. However, in some states, you have until Election Day to register.
The National Voter Registration Day is often mistaken for the last day to register to vote. However, it is simply a national holiday that is meant to promote voter registration. On this day, usually on the fourth Tuesday of September of every year, volunteers across the nation set up registration stations and encourage residents to register.