The Guide to U.S. Voter Registration

Any U.S. citizen who is 18 years of age and residing among the 50 states is legally entitled to cast a vote in any election. However, registration rules vary across the country. The National Voter Registration Act designated a single form that is uniformly used. This form, called the National Mail Voter Registration Form, registers new voters or updates existing information such as address or political party affiliation for existing registered voters. This form is used differently in different parts of the country and for certain citizens, so it is crucial that you are aware of your state-specific instructions.

Using the National Mail Voter Registration Form

The National Form was designed to be a versatile document, and has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Japanese and Korean. It is legal to copy this form within certain size dimensions, which opens up cost-saving opportunities for not-for-profit groups. Organizations like voter registration groups can produce mass copies of the form on paper or cardstock and use them at registration drives. Forms may be mailed individually or in bundles, potentially furthering cost savings for groups like these.

Most states allow this form to be filled out and mailed in, though deadlines may vary between states. The exception to this is for residents of North Dakota, Wyoming and the U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam). North Dakota abolished voter registration in 1951, Wyoming has its own registration form, and the Electoral College does not allow residents of the U.S. territories to cast votes.

If you are using the National Form for the first time, federal law requires that you provide proof of address in two forms. You are not federally required to show identification to vote, but some states may require it. You may mail in the National Form and consider yourself successfully registered if the form is legally postmarked by your state’s deadline. For example, in Illinois the deadline is defined as 27 days before the election in which you wish to vote. However, the state of Maine defines it more succinctly as Oct. 16, 2012 for the General and Referendum Election.

Exceptions and Alternatives to Registration By Mail

If you choose not to mail in your form, you may register in person at local social service agencies, your Department of Motor Vehicles office, city or township offices, at a voter registration drive or numerous other places specified by your state. Federal law also requires that when individuals apply for public assistance, they must be offered voter registration at the same time.

Uniformed service members and U.S. citizens living abroad must not use the National Form. Instead, the Federal Post Card Application must be filed. This form states the intent to cast an absentee vote. Most, but not all, states require that absentee voters already have been registered on U.S. soil. Military service members and their families living abroad should use their last legal U.S. residential address for jurisdictional purposes. Expatriate citizens must use their last legal state of residence. You may mail materials from a U.S. embassy or consulate, but you may not vote there.

Guidelines for Absentee Voting

When you file a Post Card Application, you are requesting your state to send an absentee ballot to your current address prior to the election. You may file this online or mail it to your local election office. States are required to mail absentee ballots 45 days prior to elections, so ensure that the Post Card Application has been received well before then. Most states grant absentee ballot status for a year at a time. U.S. citizens who are abroad for the long term should apply for absentee ballot voting in January of each year.

If you have moved within the U.S. since you last voted, you must re-register to update your address. You can use the National Form to mail in this information. You may also do this in person at any state-designated public facility, Department of Motor Vehicles, state or local election office or public assistance agency. You may also find information online about applying for U.S. citizenship.

Voting rights continue to make headlines prior to this year’s General Election. Early in 2012, 33 states passed laws that require photo identification at the polls. Some states’ laws are stricter than others, and some states are still embroiled with the U.S. Justice Department on the constitutionality of similar proposed amendments. Be sure you are up to date on your state’s current status before you go to the polls.