Congratulations, you’re heading to the polls for the first time. But you might have questions. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
Here are three steps you can take to feel confident about your vote.
Jump ahead to the noted time stamp if you want to go straight to one of these steps.
A lot of this depends on what state you’re in. Also, things are different because we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
There are two ways you can vote: by mail or you can go to the polls.
Decide how you’ll send your ballot back (0:38)
Voting by mail is a good way to go if you’re worried about crowds or feeling safe in the pandemic. You just have to decide how to send it back.
“In some states, you can return a mail-in ballot at a drop box,” says Jennifer Kavanagh, a political scientist for the RAND Corporation. “In some places, you can return it to a registrar’s office or a polling location.”
Decide when you’ll go to the polls (1:03)
The sad thing about voting by mail is you don’t get to have that iconic polling place experience. That might be really important to you. If you end up voting in-person, decide when you’ll go. You might be able to go before Election Day depending on where you live.
“There is a safe and secure way for everybody to vote. It's just a matter of choosing the option that works best for you and your tolerance for risk,” says Kavanagh.
No matter what, do everything early.
Focus on the biggest issues you care about. It can be tempting to look at what candidates have said about every single topic. But try to pick your top two or three.
“As humans, we are limited information processors. We can’t really hold all that much information in our heads simultaneously,” says Mona Kleinberg, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. “This idea of just learning as much as you can and trying to weigh everything against everything doesn’t necessarily lead to the best decision.”
Connect your everyday life to bigger issues (2:02)
Sometimes it’s hard to see how national issues actually affect your life. Think about what you worry about every day and then connect it to the larger picture.
“Try to make that connection from how it affects your local community — how it aligns with your values — to the larger national debate,” says Noorya Hayat, a civic learning researcher at Tufts University.
Be critical of everything (2:20)
You’re probably going to come across websites or authors you don’t know. Find out what their deal is and be critical of everything you look at. Also, you’ll probably see facts and opinions. Both are fine to look at, but just remember they’re different.
“The facts are going to often be backed up with numbers and statistics,” says Sherasa Thomas, an education director for the Anti-Defamation League. “Almost like when you’re doing a research paper, right?”
Once you’re done with your research, talk it out with a friend. They can point out things you’re missing or flaws in your thinking. And remember to always be a skeptic.
It’s important to vote, even if you don’t love the candidates. Not voting can actually cost you.
“By choosing to abstain, you’re not really abstaining,” says Kleinberg. “You’re just giving somebody else a little piece of the power. You’re letting other people decide for you.”
There’s a whole history of people being prevented from voting. That might make you feel discouraged. But on the flip side, it shows you how important it is to use your vote.
“Your vote definitely doesn’t count if you don’t vote,” says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “If we want to make claims about voter suppression, those are actually really hard to measure. But we definitely can’t measure the woulda, coulda, shouldas”
Think about the other side (3:31)
You might have really strong feelings about a certain issue or candidate. That’s totally fine. Sometimes I like to ask myself, “How am I feeling right now and how might that be affecting my point of view?” Another good trick: try defending the other side and see what you learn.
“I would often assign students to just tell me what you think about a particular issue. Those that were for it and those that were against it — then I would make them flip,” says Thomas. “That makes you really think critically about the who, what, where and why of a particular issue. And be objective.”
Avoid thinking of voting as "good” vs. “bad” (4:01)
Sometimes when we’re deciding who to vote for, we say this person is “bad” and this person is “good.” And voting for them means we 100 percent agree with everything they’ve ever said. That’s not really a helpful way of thinking and it’s also probably not possible.
“A lot of people feel that if they vote for a candidate that they don’t agree with 100 percent, their integrity is compromised. And that’s really not true,” says Kleinberg. “You want to think about this as your ability to exercise your power to at least give an indication of the direction that you want this country to head in.”
“We’re in the middle of a moment in which our country is facing a reckoning and we’re not going to get ourselves out of this position unless we hear from all,” says Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections program at NYU.
Let’s Talk Politics: Bias, dialogue and critical thinking (Anti-Defamation League)
Guidelines for achieving bias-free communication (Anti-Defamation League)
Family conversations about current events (Anti-Defamation League)
Elections and the youth vote (Anti-Defamation League)
Voting rights then and now (Anti-Defamation League)
Latest state-by-state election changes due to covid-19 (League of Women Voters)
Vote411 (League of Women Voters)