The 2018 midterm elections are fast approaching. Are you ready to vote and make your voice heard? Here at Refinery29, we know how complicated the process for actually exercising that right can be. So, with just one week to go until Election Day, November 6, 2018, we’re breaking down the answers to all your burning election-related questions — the ones you’re too afraid to ask. Read on to learn the basics of how to register and what to expect when you go cast your ballot.
So I keep hearing about the *serious newscaster voice* “crucial midterm elections.” What even are they?
The midterms are the federal and state elections that happen in between the presidential election (always on even years). All 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives serve two-year terms and are up for a vote. Terms in the Senate are six years long and staggered, and so about a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs. There are also a bunch of really important state and local (think governor, attorney general and state legislature) races to vote in.
So why all the fuss if this happens every other year? One reason you’re hearing a lot about the midterms this year is that many political observers think that Democrats could win (aka flip) enough districts now represented by Republicans to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives. That change alone would have a big impact on national politics, since Republicans currently control the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and the White House. But the Senate could also flip as well, making this year’s midterm elections potentially the most consequential in many years.
On top of all that, as you’ve also probably heard, this year has led to a record surge in women running for office, meaning the outcomes in November could very well help close that sad gender gap that persists in all levels of political office. Women make up 51% of the American population, and yet only about 20% of elected officials across the different levels of government are women. There has also been a surge in candidates who are immigrants, people of color, and first-time candidates (aka those who are not career politicians) — what all of this ladders up to are big changes in the way our government looks and operates.
When is this all happening again?
Like during the presidential year, the general election falls on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. This year, that date will be Tuesday, November 6 (mark your calendar now!).
Polling station hours vary by state, so look those up now and make a plan for when you’re going to vote and how you’re going to get there. Have to work that day? Most states have some sort of law in place protecting your right to time off to vote (you might opt to vote before or after your shift, too, just to make sure you can get it done.) Need a ride? There are groups out there ready to help, including Lyft, which plans to offer discounted or free rides on Election Day.
Okay, we’re like... weeks away. Why are we talking about this now?
Because unless you live in North Dakota, eligible voters must register in order to cast a ballot, and those registration deadlines are coming up fast. Unfortunately, just 15 states currently allow voters to register on Election Day and deadlines in some places are already starting to hit. Our advice? Check your state’s deadline and get it done now so you don’t have to scramble later.
In 37 states and Washington, D.C., eligible voters can sign up online. Otherwise, you can go register in person or via mail. The annoying thing is that every state has their own rules and process; to learn about the process in your state, check out this handy resource on Vote.gov. Rock the Vote also offers a super easy platform for checking your registration status and getting the ball rolling on registering (it takes two minutes to complete. Seriously, there’s no excuse!).
The most basic qualifications for voting are that you are 18 by or on Election Day and a U.S. citizen. But as we’ve explained before, the rules and residency requirements vary by state, so you’ll want to take a look at any specific regulations in the place where you live (Read more about the state regulations in this great primer).
But I voted in the presidential election. My registration must still be good, right?
Probably. But if you moved into a different state or even just a different district since the last election, you’ll need to register at your new address. If you’re not sure, definitely take three seconds to check your registration status and make sure you get it squared away by Election Day.
I’m from Iowa but I’m going to school in California. Where should I register?
It’s up to you. College students have a right to register at their school residence or back home, as the Fair Elections Legal Network notes. But you do have to choose; you can’t cast a ballot in both places for the same election.
If you’re looking for information about how to register at your school, check out this state-by-state guide from Campus Vote Project. Groups like NextGen America and the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition are also launching campus registration drives and providing other on-the-ground resources across the country. Click the links to find out if they are active at your school.
If you opt to remain registered in your home state, don’t forget to request an absentee ballot before it’s too late.
This seems like a hassle. Does my vote really matter?
Yes! As former first lady Michelle Obama put it at one recent voter registration rally: "You wouldn't give your crazy uncle the power to post a picture to your Instagram feed, so why would you give a stranger the power to make far more important decisions in your life?" Showing up to vote is literally the most powerful thing you can do to have a say in your government.
But I voted for president. Isn’t that the only office that really matters?
The American presidency is the most powerful elected position in the country and probably even the world. But members of Congress (and state legislatures) actually make the laws that head to the president’s (or governor’s) desk and fill other super important duties (See: Senators voting on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh). The actions of the state and local officials who win this November will undoubtedly impact your life, too.
Do you care about how much you pay in taxes? What about affordable health care? Or paid family leave? Do you care whether women can access abortion and other critical reproductive health services? What about whether you can smoke (legal) weed? All those issues (and more) could be decided by the folks who who win this year. On top of that, in many states, voters also get a direct say on super important issues via the ballot: In fact, this year 38 states will vote on 154 statewide ballot measures on issues ranging from voting rights to raising the minimum wage and everything in between. For example, North Dakotans will decide whether to legalize marijuana. In Massachusetts, a statewide vote will determine whether to keep anti-discrimination protections for transgender folks. In Florida, voters will decide whether to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve finished their sentences and parole.
But I don’t even know who’s running or what’s on my ballot.
Yes, it’s a lot to keep track of. But the good news is there are tons of resources out there to help you figure it out.
For starters, you can get a sample ballot via your state or local election officials (start by Googling your state, plus “voter registrar’s office” or “secretary of state.” If the website is confusing, call). Then once you have an idea of what’s on your ballot, you can research the candidates and issues. The League of Women Voters puts out a nonpartisan ballot guide, too. Check out a customized version for your state here. If you align with a specific political affiliation, try checking out your state party endorsements. Local news sites will often put out guides of their own (and publish stories on the candidates and where they stand). And of course, don’t be shy about asking friends and family.
Crap. I just realized I’m going to be out of town/working/busy. Is there another way?
In many cases, yes, but you’ll want to act soon. Most states offer early voting, either IRL or an absentee (read: mail-in) ballot. The deadlines vary by state, though, so be sure to check it out and make a plan sooner rather than later. You can check with your local election officials or try this great search-by-state resource from the US Vote Foundation. As long as you drop your absentee ballot in the mail by your state’s deadline, the Post Office will make sure it gets to the election officials — even if you forget a stamp… or for some reason can’t figure out where to buy one (Answer: the Post Office, WalMart or even Amazon).
I don’t know. It still just feels like my vote won’t make a difference.
It’s easy to feel that way given how polarized things are these days, but just look at the margins, even in major national elections. A mere 540 votes in Florida swung the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush over Al Gore. In 2016, it was 79,646 voters in three key states who delivered a victory to President Donald Trump. If that number sounds big to you, consider that the figure represents less than .0006% of the more than 130 million ballots cast in the election a as whole.
In local and state elections, things can be even tighter. In 2010, California’s attorney general race was so close that it took election officials weeks to count enough ballots to determine who won. The victor, Democrat Kamala Harris, went on to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2016 and is now widely considered to be a potential presidential candidate.
Wow. Alright, so where do I go to vote?
Unless you already voted early IRL or absentee, you should look up your polling place and head there on November 6. Two states — Oregon and Washington — have switched to all-mail voting. If you live there, you can drop your ballot in the mail or at a drop box. There is no such thing as online voting (sorry).
Do I need an ID?
I’ve heard it can take forever to vote. What do I do if there’s a long line?
Wait in it! Seriously. Download a podcast or queue up a good book on your iPhone to pass the time. As long as you’re in line before the scheduled close of the polls, officials can’t legally turn you away.
What do I do if someone tells me I can’t vote?
First, make sure you’re at the correct polling place. If you’re at the right place but your eligibility is still being questioned, you should be able to fill out a regular or provisional ballot (how these ballots are handled varies by state). There are plenty of resources out there to help you sort out any Election Day issues that arise, including this primer from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Election Protection Hotline. Add this number to your phone now in case you need it: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).