Here’s How To Read A Ballot So You Can Be Ready For Voting In November
Education Resources For Election Day
There’s a notable problem when it comes to elections in the United States: ballots are challenging to read. I’ve found that trying to understand election ballots is up there with doing my taxes and calculating the interest on my student loans. For all three of the general elections I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ve sprinted into the political season eager to understand and memorize every amendment and candidate. But I always lose steam. Perhaps it’s the laundry list of judges that makes my vision blur, or the legislative jargon that has me grateful I didn’t go to law school. I know I’m not alone in admitting that I generally vote based on party affiliation.
Of course, voting is an incredible privilege and something to be taken seriously. But that doesn’t change the fact that elections present significant barriers for citizens. It takes time to research candidates, an education for understanding, and (often) English as a first language to comprehend a ballot in its entirety. (Multilingual election materials are only available to non-English speaking citizens if they live in an area where their language group is densely represented). It’s safe to say that the United States needs an overhaul when it comes to creating an inclusive and straightforward voting system.
Until that day, we need a temporary solution. So, for voters new and experienced, here’s your quick breakdown of how to read the ballot for the 2020 election.
4 Simple Steps To Prepare For Voting Day
With less than 100 days until the 2020 general election, it’s time to get ready to vote. In addition to checking voter registration (or registering for the first time), thoughtful civic engagement includes learning about politicians and ballot measures. Even when voting by mail, reviewing our ballots before election day ensures we’re more mindful and empowered voters come November 3.
No one is denying that the presidential vote is incredibly important, but so are the statewide propositions and the local seats within our communities. This November specifically, we will vote on more than 450 seats in U.S. Congress. It’s a big election year, to say the least.
1. Familiarize yourself with ballot terms
As you research specific candidates and measures, there are a few more terms you can keep in mind. Outside of the ‘big ticket’ items, there are state and city seats, as well as ballot measures (also called propositions). The good news is, common voting and election terms are the same throughout the United States, even though what and who is on a ballot varies depending on where you live.
2. Request and read your sample ballot
In the coming days and weeks, sample ballots will be released depending on your geographic location (in some states, they are already available). Here are three nonpartisan resources where you can view your sample ballot for November:
BallotReady began as a solution to uninformed voting. The women-founded, nonpartisan organization is affiliated with the University of Chicago (the women’s alma mater). All information on the website “is verified by researchers and linked back to its source.”
My favorite thing about this BallotReady is the app; it allows you to save information and bookmark the candidates you plan to vote for. You can then bring this app with you to the booth on election day or print out your choices for easy reference.
This voting guide is run by the League of Women Voters Education Fund, a “strictly nonpartisan [organization that] neither supports nor opposes candidates for office at any level of government.” The website is a one-stop-shop for election-related information, as well as sample ballots.
Do a quick Google search for “sample ballots in [insert your state]” for state-specific website results.
For example, Voter’s Edge is a joint project of MapLight (a nonpartisan nonprofit revealing the influence of money in politics) and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund. California residents can access nonpartisan information, as well as sample ballots based on address.
3. Learn about your statewide measures and propositions
Apart from electing federal and state officials, the most important votes we will cast this November are for propositions and statewide measures. These ballot measures are localized and vary depending on where you live in the United States.
According to BallotReady, there are 95,000 positions on the 2020 ballot across the country, and that’s in addition to the presidential vote. A lot is up for grabs this year.
For example, Nebraska will be voting on whether or not to remove slavery as punishment for crime from the constitution amendment; Utah will be voting on gender-neutral constitutional language; and California will be voting on the right to vote for people on parole or convicted of a felony. And those are only three propositions. Others range from suffrage and social justice amendments to rulings on healthcare, local business practices, and taxes.
Ballotpedia is the “digital encyclopedia of American politics and elections,” and it’s an excellent nonpartisan resource for learning about the measures specific to your state. With comprehensive breakdowns, as well as information about who is behind an initiative, the site makes it easy to learn about propositions and decide how you’ll cast your votes.
ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, is another excellent resource for learning about specific legislators, bills, statements, and lobbying. Simply enter your address or search specific keywords (i.e., ‘Planned Parenthood’) for information about recent bills and votes. The website will also tell you what measures are under consideration in real-time and show you the latest congressional statements.
4. Finally, register to vote
According to Student Voices, “young people (18-29) make up 21% of the voting population in the U.S. elections, yet only 50% of eligible voters in this age group voted in the 2016 general election.”
Voting is one of the most effective ways to practice civic engagement and actively participate in creating change. This year specifically, many of us are feeling at a loss with how to communicate with our officials effectively. We’ve protested, sent emails, and left messages on council members’ answering machines. But too often, it feels like our voices are going unheard, which is why we vote.
So if you haven’t already: check your voter registration here or register to vote for the first time here. And then, join us as we push back against voter suppression and last-minute election barriers. Because voting should be easy, and it should be accessible to everyone.
What nonpartisan resources do you use to stay politically informed? 🗳️ Share in the comments below?
Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.