Voting Rights and Eligibility

Even though voter registration happens at a state level, the rules for who can vote are set nationally. With the 2020 election fast approaching, now is the time to make sure your voter registration is current and ready to go.

If you have not registered to vote yet, be sure to do so before your state’s deadline. Depending on your state, failing to register enough ahead of time may lock you out of this election cycle completely.

Before registering, however, it is important to find out if you are eligible to vote in 2020. Trying to cast a ballot if you are not eligible to vote can lead to fines, felony charges and even a prison sentence. The sections below explain who can vote in 2020, how you can lose your voting rights and what to do if you feel your vote is being suppressed.

Who can vote?

The laws around who can vote in federal elections are simpler today than they have ever been. To meet voting eligibility requirements, you must be:

  • A U.S. citizen.
  • A resident in your state.
  • 18 years or older.

Although your state may have additional rules regarding who has the right to vote in local and national elections, these are the basic requirements for all voters.

However, voting laws were not always so simple or inclusive. In fact, it wasn’t until 1919 that women were given the right to vote. Similarly, prior to 1965, African-Americans faced widespread voter suppression that limited their ability to cast a ballot in their states.

Who cannot vote?

You cannot vote in a presidential election if you are younger than 18 or are not a U.S. citizen. However, some states may have additional requirements for their voters.

A few states, for instance, take away felon voting rights indefinitely for those who are convicted of certain crimes, even after their sentence is over. Others take away voting rights for incarcerated individuals but restore those rights automatically once these individuals have served their sentences.

The answer to the question, “Who can vote in primaries?” also varies by state. There are three types of primaries:

  • Closed primaries: Some states, like Florida, have closed primaries. This means that you must be a member of a political party in order to vote in that party’s primary election.
  • Open primaries: If your state has open primaries, you can vote in any party’s primary election regardless of your affiliation. However, you cannot vote in more than one party’s election.
  • Semi-open primaries: These are also called hybrid or semi-closed primaries. This type of primary allows unaffiliated voters to cast a ballot in any one party’s primary.

Voting Rights You Need to Know About

In addition to being eligible to vote in national and state elections, there are a few other voting rights U.S. citizens should be aware of.

Accessibility Rights

To accommodate voters with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) laid out certain accessibility rules that all polling places must follow. These rules require polling locations to make reasonable accommodations for voters with disabilities. This means that all voting locations must have:

  • Handrails on stairs.
  • Wide entrances.
  • Booths that can accommodate wheelchairs.

If you have a disability that makes it hard for you to visit a polling place in person, you may be able to vote by mail, depending on your state. Additionally, voters who cannot read or write can bring someone to assist them in the booths.

For more information on your rights as a voter, review this national voting guide.

Secret Ballots

One of the most important rights available to all voters is the right to cast a ballot anonymously. Also known as the “Australian ballot,” the secret ballot allows you to vote without fear of intimidation, bribery, retaliation or blackmail. To protect the right to a secret ballot, all voting booths come equipped with privacy screens or similar features.

Voter Suppression and Election Fraud

National and local elections are one of the pillars of a functioning democracy. To ensure that elections are fair and honest, it is important for politicians, election officials and voters alike follow the rules.

In general, the laws governing elections fall into two main categories:

  • Voter suppression laws
  • Voter fraud laws

Election fraud is a very serious matter. It occurs when someone who cannot legally vote attempts to cast a ballot anyway. Fortunately, voter fraud and illegal voting are extremely rare in the United States.

Voter suppression, on the other hand, occurs when states, cities or counties make it more difficult for eligible citizens to vote. This includes tactics like making it harder to prove one’s identity at the polls, eliminating access to early voting and decreasing the number of voter registration drives. Some voting advocates even point to gerrymandering and unfair redistricting as forms of voter suppression.