Why (and How to) Vote

Why (and How to) Vote

Susan Burtchell, Fall 2020

Most adult U.S. citizens, 18 years or older, have the opportunity to vote in the presidential election. Yet nearly 90 million citizens did not participate in the 2016 election, representing a disproportionate number of young and low-income people. [1] Reasons for low voter turnout is typically assigned to apathy and structural impediments, such as state voting laws and gerrymandering. I believe a lack of civic education in the voting process is also an underlying issue with non-voters. Educating constituencies on six critical elements (below) may encourage non-voters to engage in the voting process.

1. Representation.
2. Political parties.
3. Candidate selection.
4. Ballot initiatives and referendums.
5. Avoiding white noise.
6. Voting.

1. Representation

Elected members of the Senate and House of Representatives serve geographically-based constituents. They reside in the region they represent and are chosen by their district’s population through the voting process. There are two Senators for each of the 50 states and serve a six-year term. They represent between 600 thousand and 40 million people, based on a given state’s population. The House of Representatives is divided into 435 congressional districts nationwide, representing a population of approximately 750 thousand each within their state and serve a two-year term.[2] While the U.S. president represents the entire country, U.S. citizens do not directly elect the president. The 538-member Electoral College [3] is responsible for selecting the president and vice president based on the citizens’ popular vote within each state. Each state receives one electoral vote for each Senator and one for each member of the House of Representatives, with the District of Columbia having three electoral votes.

2. Political Parties

Political parties [4] are comprised of like-minded people who come together to influence elections through voting and swaying public policy. Many party members work within local, state, or federal government in elected positions, as lobbyists, and in supporting organizations. Others who align with a particular party do so only during the voting process. Members of a political party generally share an ideology or belief system. The Pew Research Center provides a quick 23 question quiz [5] to help new voters self-identify their beliefs with a political party. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), in collaboration with the American Democracy Project, provide an overview of each political party. [6] Two major U.S. parties include the Democratic Party with a liberal (left-wing) ideology believing the government should intervene in the economy and provide a broad range of social services to ensure well-being and equality across society; and the Republican Party, with a conservative (right-wing) ideology believing government should be small, with minimal interference in the economy, preferring to leave problem solving to private-sector solutions. Republicans often also oppose contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. In many states, you are not required to register under a political party in order to vote and you also have the option to choose to vote outside of your party designation.

3. Candidate Selection

Comparing candidates and tracking their position on critical issues can be time-consuming. An online resource, Vote Smart, provides non-partisan information, including candidate bios, voting history, political preferences, ratings, access to their speeches, funding information, and fact-checking. Vote Smart includes a compilation of 40 thousand politicians and millions of facts. [7] Vote Easy is a tool from Vote Smart that will matches a voter to a candidate, with shared beliefs on issues like abortion, budgets, campaign finance, crime, defense, economy, education, energy and the environment, guns, healthcare, immigration, national security, and trade.[8]

4. Ballot Initiatives and Referendums

Initiative and referendum ballot questions originate from processes that allow citizens to place new legislation on the popular vote ballot or place legislation recently passed on a ballot for a popular vote. There are two types of initiative processes, the direct and indirect process. Direct initiatives are proposals with enough resident signatures to go directly on the ballot. Indirect initiative processes submit the proposal and signatures to the state legislature, which may act on the proposal. The popular referendum process allows voters to approve or repeal an act of the legislature. For example, suppose the legislature passes a law that the voters do not support. In that case, voters can collect signatures to demand a popular vote on the law, which should be done ninety days after the law initially passed. If this happens, the law remains on hold until the completion of the popular vote. If voters reject it, it does not become law. [9]

5. Avoiding White Noise

As elections draw near, voters can be overwhelmed to distraction with political rhetoric, falsehoods, and negative campaign messages that distract voters. Vote by Design [10] is free to users and designed to silence white noise and develop voter agency. It offers educators access to classroom curriculum resources, students are provided with an online workbook, and community leaders are offered a workshop toolkit. Voters are also invited to sign-up for an online session, that is quick, informative, and personally actionable.

6. Voting

Each state sets its own rules and regulations for voting that continually evolve and vary from state to state. Each Secretary of State office is responsible for providing voter information, processes, deadlines, and other general information related to elections and voting. A federal government website offers a link to each state’s election office website. [11] The Brennan Center for Justice [12] is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that tracks state voting legislation for changes that may restrict or expand voting access, restore voting rights, and improve security. In 2020, 29 states introduced bills to make it easier to vote, such as growing in-person voting, easing voter registration, absentee voting, and restoring voting rights for people with past criminal convictions. Fifteen states introduced bills to make it harder to vote, limiting voter assistance and restrictions using voter IDs. The 2020 election marks the first time the Generation Z Americans (born after 1996) are eligible to vote in a presidential election, representing one in ten eligible Americans – an increase of four percent. [13] Voter turnout for presidential elections expands and contracts by demographic factors, including race, age, gender, and ethnicity. The 2020 indicators suggest a record-high voter turnout for the presidential election influenced by the global pandemic, divisiveness, and extensive grassroots civic activism. While the turnout is an increase, it remains low by global democratic standards. As a nation we can do better.

The organization for Student Training and Education in Public Services [14] (STEPS) boils down the voting process to seven steps:

1. Register to vote in person, online, or by mail.
2. Choose your party affiliation.
3. Research the candidates.
4. Understand the issues using reliable sources.
5. Check state-specific rules and rights.
6. Find your polling place.
7. Cast your ballot.

Also consider the power and impact within voting bloc segments as identified by STEPS:

Students: The U.S. Census Bureau identifies 18.4 million Americans enrolled in colleges and universities. Add to that the number of high school students who are 18 or older. Online resources include: Student Vote, Project Vote-Youth Voting, and Students Learn Students Vote.

LGBTQIA+: According to a Gallup poll, approximately 4.5 percent of the U.S. population identified as LGBT in 2018, bringing essential representation perspectives for individuals identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual within the gender spectrum. Online resources include the National LGBTQ Task Force, Queer the Vote, and Human Rights Campaign.

Military Personnel: According to Pew Research and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016, veterans make up 20.4 million individuals, plus all military personnel on active duty and military reserve members. Online resources include the Federal Voting Assistance Program – Military Voters, Voting for Military Service Members and Their Families, and Nonpartisan Voter Services for Uniformed Service Members.

Minorities: Minority populations represent close to 118 million Americans, representing one of the largest collective special-interest voting blocs. They include Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, Asian American, Native American, Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Arab/Middle Eastern Americans. Online resources include Voto Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

Religious Groups: Close to 71 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, with close to six percent participating in non-Christian faiths base on Pew Research. Voter religious orientation is a powerful voice in the voting process. Online resources include Council on American-Islamic Relations – Voter Information, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Episcopalians Vote!

Voters with Disabilities: Nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability, including behavioral, cognitive, developmental, or physical. They have their voice heard by voting for knowledgeable and compassionate candidates who understand that their needs matter. Online resources include the U.S. Election Assistance Commission – Voting Accessibility, Americans with Disabilities Act & Voting Rights, and the National Disability Rights Network. See our related essay, “Voting Rights and the Physically Disabled” (2018).

Women: More women than men live in the United States. Women tend to be active voters, creating a powerful voice nationally. Online resources include the League of Women Voters, National Women’s Political Caucus, Women’s Campaign Fund, and National Organization of Women – Advance Voting Rights.

American Voters Living Abroad: Close to nine million Americans live outside the United States, requiring smooth channels to ensure a path to have their voice heard. They have the option of Early Voting and Absentee Voting.

A functioning democracy depends on the civic engagement of its citizens and their commitment to the voting process. Vote!


[1] Lichtman, Allan J., The Embattled Vote in America, From the Founding to the Present. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 2018.

[2] Gov.trak.us. Online. “Members of Congress” November, 2020 November, 2020 https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members

[3] National Conference of State Legislatures. “Electoral College.” Online. November, 2020. https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/the-electoral-college.aspx

[4] Khan Academy. “Ideologies of political parties” Online. November, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-government-and-civics/us-gov-american-political-ideologies-and-beliefs/us-gov-ideologies-of-political-parties/a/lesson-summary-ideologies-of-political-parties

[5] America’s Democracy Project. “Determine your political typology.” Online. November, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/quiz/political-typology/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Vote Smart, Just the Facts. Online. November, 2020.

[8] Vote Smart. Just the Facts. Election Choice. Online. November, 2020.

[9] National Conference of State Legislatures. “Initiative and referendum processes.” Online. November, 2020. https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/initiative-and-referendum-processes.aspx

[10] Vote by Design.org. Online. November, 2020

[11] USA.gov. “Find My State or Local Election Office Website” Online. November, 2020. https://www.usa.gov/election-office

[12] Brennan Center for Justice. “State Voting Laws.” Online. November, 2020. https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/voting-reform/state-voting-laws

[13] Gramlich, John. Pew Research Center. “ What the 2020 electorate looks like by party, race, ethnicity, age, education and religion.” Online. October 26, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/26/what-the-2020-electorate-looks-like-by-party-race-and-ethnicity-age-education-and-religion/

[14] Student Training and Education in Public Service. Online. November, 2020. https://www.publicservicedegrees.org/resources/student-voting-guide/

Further Reading / Viewing

Brownstein, Ronald. “The GOP’s demographic doom, Millennials and Gen Z are only a few years from dominating the electorate.” October, 2020. The Atlantic.

Pew. “Why are millions of citizens not registered to vote?” November, 2020.

Romero, Mindy. “The Power of the Youth Vote.” TEDx Talks. May, 2016.

Worcester State University Fall 2022