First time voting? Everything you should have considered, but didn't

Voting can be intimidating if you've never done it


“Pics or it didn’t happen,” right?

If you’re a millennial, you’re probably thinking, “right!” But you might want to proceed with caution when it comes to using your cellphone (and its camera function) at the polls, when you go to cast a ballot in the upcoming election.

Depending on where you live, if you choose to replace the ever-popular “I voted!” sticker with a virtual version, a so-called “ballot selfie,” and you post it online, it just might be illegal. (Or you live in a state where it's "legally unclear").

It might sound silly to some, but this is a real thing that's made headlines in the past.

In Michigan, for example, a federal judge ruled before the last presidential election that people could take ballot selfies. (It had previously been illegal). But then a judge's order was overturned -- meaning the photos are now prohibited (again). Confusing, right? Michigan's ban on exposing completed ballots has been in place since 1891. State officials say the rules are intended to protect the integrity of the election.

And if you’re in Tennessee — as pop star Justin Timberlake was in 2016 when he traveled to his hometown of Memphis to vote early — the act of snapping a ballot selfie is considered illegal, as well.

At first, officials said Timberlake was "under review," but then clarified, saying they did not plan to charge the singer/actor.

Still, taking a photo inside a polling station is considered a misdemeanor crime in that state, and Timberlake could have been punished by having to spend 30 days in jail, or pay a $50 fine. However impractical that seems, it’s important to consider the repercussions, wouldn’t you think?

So … speaking of considerations. What else should first-time voters think about, or know in advance before heading to the polls? (I mean, our parents didn’t have to worry about the legality of a ballot selfie, you know?)

Voting can be intimidating if you’ve never done it. With the ever-changing world we’re now living in, it’s safe to say first-time voters have much more to consider than just filling out a ballot properly. We asked around to gauge what people of all ages wondered as they headed to the precinct for the first time. Let’s try to answer your questions in advance, so that there’s minimal confusion before heading out.

The experience:

  • What's it going to look like in there?
  • Who will I encounter?
  • Will there be long lines, or are there any ways to avoid those?
  • Do I have to go to my polling place? Can’t I just vote from home, or on my phone?

Let's dive in. Polling places are set up in a variety of locations: schools, churches, local government offices and sometimes even private homes. So, what it will look like will depend on your venue. (Also worth noting: You can check your voter registration status, or even connect with your state's official website, by looking yourself up on vote.org).

Once you know where your precinct is and you arrive safely -- remember: Uber and Lyft are offering free and discounted rides, so no excuses there! -- you’ll probably walk in and see a line of people.

When you get to the front of the line, you’ll show someone your identification and go vote. The actual area where you’ll cast a ballot is a little different. You'll see booths that offer some privacy. You'll fill out your selections in there, and then when you’re finished, you’ll likely see signs or a second line where you’ll submit your ballot.

Don’t be nervous — it’s kind of like the airport. If you’re not sure on your next move, observe for a minute and see where other people are going. These precincts are set up so that average, everyday people can figure them out easily. You got this.

And when in doubt, ask a poll worker. You’ll probably spot several around your polling station, along with fellow voters and community members.

The only people you might not have expected to see? Activists and campaign supporters; meaning, people who are passionate about a cause or a candidate, and they might approach you and try to swing your vote. Just like you did while studying up on the issues at stake and all the candidates (well, hopefully), remember to consider the source. If you’re confident in your decision or you’ve firmly made up your mind heading into the polls (as we recommend), drown out the noise and don’t let the people campaigning affect you. They are allowed to approach the poll line, but there’s a spot they can’t walk past. Most state rules prevent these supporters from being within either 50 or 100 feet of a polling station. But it’s not uncommon for them to walk right up to your car and try to influence your vote. Now you know!

When it comes to the lines, you’ll want to be strategic about when you go.

If you REALLY don’t want to wait, depending where you live, you may be able to vote early or by mail. But if you’re casting a ballot in person, on Election Day, consider what time you’ll visit the precinct. The experts recommend mid-morning, as in, just after people have gone to work but before lunch; or mid-afternoon, meaning after lunch, but before most people get out of work.

As you can imagine, the lunch hour likely will be busy, as will the time just before the polls close. It also depends on what state you call home — it’s probably worth it to ask friends or relatives who have voted previously in your area, to see what they recommend. If you have a flexible enough schedule to go during non-peak hours (many advise around 10:30 a.m., or 2:30 p.m.), take advantage of it!

At this point in the game, yes, you do have to go to your polling place in person, assuming you haven't made other arrangements by now.

However, if you’d like to vote from home (or, absentee as it’s actually called) next time, you can request to do so before the next election. You do need to have a reason, in most cases, but yours could be as simple as, you expect to be absent from the city in which you live on the next Election Day. (Also, college students, if you’re away at school and still using your parents’ address, this counts as your reason!)

And no, at this time, you cannot vote on your phone. Voting online isn’t available in any state.

Your demeanor:

  • How should I act?
  • Am I allowed to talk to people in line, or is that weird?
  • What if I have questions?
  • What if I see something suspicious at the polls? Who do I tell?

Bottom line, don’t sweat the voting process. Act as you normally would. No one’s watching you especially. Small talk is fine in line, just keep it quiet once you get to the area with the actual voting booths.

And having said that, keep in mind that it’s not cool to talk politics at the polls. Don't make people uncomfortable, or ask who they're voting for, or preach about your candidate or how you feel on an issue. If you must chit-chat, stick to friendly topics like the weather. 

Whether or not you can have your cellphone out will depend on your state. Also, don’t feel strange asking for help or asking questions; that’s what poll workers are there for. They’ve heard it all before.

If you think you see something suspicious, the poll workers are a great resource. But if you’re uncomfortable talking to them, or you believe the issue transcends what they can do or assist with on a local level, you should contact the Elections Department in your state, and/or the ACLU. Be prepared to provide your name, phone number, location and the details of your incident.

The "oops" factor:

  • I've never filled out a ballot.
  • What if I screw it up?
  • What kind of system or machine should I expect?

First of all, check, double check and triple check before submitting your ballot. You’ll want to make sure you’ve filled it out properly to reflect your choices.

Still, mistakes happen. If you discover you’ve made a blunder, or you’re having problems with your voting machine (we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, for those of you skimming this article), ask a poll worker. There are several different types of machines in use across the U.S., so the worker should be able to help you fix your error using the proper system.

Here’s what usually happens: Officials will confiscate your ballot and give you a new one. An election judge will either destroy your old version on the spot, or put it in a box designated for damaged or incorrectly marked ballots. After the election has been declared official, these will be destroyed. The poll workers ensure nothing in the box is counted toward the races.

As far as the system or machine is concerned, you’ll come across one of the following: hand-counted paper ballots, punch card ballots, mechanical lever machines, optical scan ballots and electronic voting machines. Michigan even posts videos of its machines on YouTube, so you can see what to expect. Maybe your state does, too. Look it up!

The prep-work:

  • What should I have done before the big day?
  • What should I bring with me or remember to include?

Don’t just assume that because you’re over the age of 18, you’re all set to vote. You need to be registered. Check your status here.

If you show up at a polling place and it turns out you’re not registered to vote, you might be out of luck. Or you might be fortunate enough to live in one of the states where same-day registration and voting is an option.

In most states, registration deadlines are usually about two weeks to a month before the election. Look up your registration status online, and make sure you jot down your assigned precinct so you know where you’re headed. Check to make sure there’s parking in the area (there should be), or if you live in a big city, some experts recommend walking there, if possible.

Definitely bring your ID, as well. Voter ID laws can get complicated and vary by state, but you can check online to see what’s required at your polling station. If you’re unsure, take a few different forms of identification, just to be safe. You don’t want to wait in a long line only to realize you left your ID in your other purse, or you aren’t carrying an adequate form of ID to cast a ballot.

A few other things: rules differ by state for this too, but in general, if you try to vote at a location other than your assigned polling spot, you’ll have to cast a provisional ballot. This means you’ll still vote, but election officials will have to look up your eligibility after the fact and determine whether or not your vote can truly be used, or count. Learn more about provisional ballots here. Voters with disabilities have the right to be assigned an accessible polling place, but they might have to request it ahead of time.

Other considerations:

  • What should I wear?
  • What will the ballot look like?
  • What if I’m not familiar with the names or issues?
  • What are the most common voting mistakes?

Dress appropriately. And by that we mean, consider your attire. People sporting T-shirts, hats and pins touting the candidate of their choice might pose a problem. Again, this is another one of those issues that varies by state, but in general, it’s safe to say wearing your political allegiances can cause an issue. In some cases, you could be asked to leave, or be sent home to change. That goes for displaying political parties, as well (meaning, it’s best to leave your “Ann Arbor Dems” shirt at home).

Also, you can be ejected from a polling place. It doesn’t happen often, but you’ll want to make sure you act reasonably at your precinct. No smoking, don't film people with your cellphone, be sure to maintain some level of privacy in the booths, and remember not to make others around you uncomfortable. You can afford a few minutes away from Snapchat.

It helps to make your selections before you get in the booth. This will just simplify your voting process, and you won’t have to worry about last-minute Googling candidates and propositions. Besides, you’ll have enough on your mind — you won’t want to feel rushed or unprepared. Look online before you head to the polls to find a sample ballot. Pro tip: Google rolled out a new feature where all you have to do is type in “sample ballot” and hit Search, and then at the top of the page, it’ll prompt you to enter your mailing address. Once you do and you enter Search again, you’ll see a ballot preview specific to your region.

And speaking of making your picks, be sure you’re familiar with the other issues on the ballot, as well. Certain ballots will also include various measures to be voted on. Know what’s going on locally and statewide so you can cast an informed ballot. It’s your civic duty.

As for frequently made mistakes? Voting for more than one person for one office. If you do this, your vote won’t be counted. Or, not voting for the candidate you think you’re voting for — this happens sometimes when the names on the ballot line up in a confusing way. Read carefully and follow the arrows. Another common blunder is failing to follow instructions. Don’t circle a candidate’s name if you’re asked to fill out the little bubble next to his or her name. And finally, some voters who breeze through the ballot too quickly are known to skip some candidates or issues. Go slowly and review your work. You’re not required to vote on all issues and races, but you’re encouraged to do so.

*And a note for college students, military members and people living out of the country: Students, you have the right to register at your school address, and this includes your dorm room. If you receive your mail at a P.O. Box, you just need a letter from your school or a signed affidavit saying you live at your dorm address. For members of the armed forces, you can register to vote and request a ballot through Rock the Vote’s partnership with the Overseas Vote Foundation. And ex-pats are encouraged to contact the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

What do you think? Have any tips for first-time voters or something else you'd like to share? Or are you a first-time voter and have questions? Share your thoughts by adding it in the comments below.

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