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Voting. It’s a thing.  A thing that you absolutely should participate in.

Voting is kind of like cooking. Ok, its not like cooking, but bear with me here. Voting seems like a basic life skill everyone should have, yet surprisingly few Americans (especially 18-30 year-olds) actually DO it! Just like cooking, voting is harder than it sounds, and it takes time. It’s something you’d totally think you would have magically learned eons ago, but then you found yourself staring at a recipe ballot, just feeling lost as all hell. So here you are now, looking up how to do it on the internet.

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Don’t let your ballot turn out like this pizza

Never fear, DisruptingDinnerParties is here! We will be the Vote De-mystifying Fairy Godmother you never had. Here are 10 tips for how to be a savvy voter, regardless of where you live, where you stand politically, or what’s on the upcoming ballot.

Tips 1- 6: LOGISTICS

1) Register to Vote Early

If you are reading this and you are not yet registered to vote. GO REGISTER. RIGHT FREAKIN’ NOW. (psst! click the link!! It will help you register!)

Sooo….the registration deadline for the November 2014 Midterm Election was a few days ago.  If you are not registered already, I guess you aren’t voting. Oh wells! Go register now ANYWAYS. Seriously. Don’t put it off. If you weren’t ready for this election you’ll likely be unprepared for the next one…unless you go register NOW, while you’re thinking about it.

If you don’t want to navigate the website linked above, go to your local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) and pick up a form in-person. Just skip the line and grab a copy from the front desk. Everyone waiting in limbo for DMV Hell will calm down once they see you are just grabbing a registration form.

2) Opt to Vote by Mail/ Absentee Ballot

absentee ballot

my absentee ballot with return envelope

In most states, you will have the option to cast an Absentee Ballot, or vote by mail. If this is an option for you, I highly recommend it for various reasons:

  •  What if you are out-of-town on Election Day? Unfortunately you can’t just vote anywhere. There is one specific polling place that you must go to (it’s printed on the back of your Voter Information Packet). If you are out of town on Election Day, you are also, shit out luck. That is, unless you opted to vote by mail.
  • What if you are super busy on Election Day? It’s easy to forget to vote anyways. It’s even harder if you have a lot on your plate election day. Employers are required to give you time off to go vote, but unless they are ridiculously awesome, they probably aren’t going to remind you to get your butt to the ballot box. If you have children or other loved ones you need to take care of it can be even harder to be at that specific place, at that specific time, on that specific day. But if you vote by mail, you have at least two weeks to find a time to vote that is convenient for you.
  • Not everyone trusts the voting machines: Some states/municipalities will have you vote on a machine. There are many people on both sides of the political spectrum that believe votes cast by machine can be manipulated or discounted without a trace of accountability. Now, I am not sure how much I personally buy into this. But if you are worried about your vote being tossed out or altered, voting by mail will maintain a paper trail.
  • No one can harass you: I feel like every major election I hear a story of minorities being harassed, intimidated, or otherwise deterred from showing up to the polls. If you are worried that you might be targeted or harassed when you show up to vote, I highly recommend opting to vote by mail.

Final notes about voting by mail/Absentee:

  • If you vote Absentee, check the mailing deadline! It will be earlier than the actual Election Day. Put the deadline on your calendar and set up email reminders if necessary.
  • Even if you miss the mailing deadline, you might still be able to personally deliver your Absentee Ballot to your polling place on Election Day.

3) Make time to read the Voter Information Pamphlet

pamphlets

One packet for the State, another for the County and/or Municipality

As a registered voter, you should receive a Voter Information Pamphlet in the mail well before Election Day. (If it is less than 2 weeks before an election, and you have NOT received a Voter Information Pamphlet, go to the internet and figure out how to get it!)

I recommend blocking out one hour either on a weekday evening or weekend morning to look over your Voter Information Pamphlet. Then, if you feel like you need more time to make a decision, you can take it later.

The Voter Information Pamphlet will provide lots of information on who or—if you live in a state with direct democracy such as ballot measures or propositions– what is on the ballot.

For elected officials, there may candidate statement of experience and lists of endorsements.

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For direct democracy ballot measures, there is often a quick & dirty summary, an impartial analysis, official arguments for or against, and the full legal text of the proposed law. Wowie! that’s a LOT!

Luckily, you don’t need to read ALL of the information in the Voter Information Pamphlet. You just need enough so that you can make an informed decision. And that’s going to take at least a little bit of time. Start with the quick & dirty summary and endorsements (see Tip #7). Then if you feel like you need more information you can read more.

4) Fill out the Sample Ballot before going to the Polls

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You may receive a Sample Ballot with your Voter Information Pamphlet. If you aren’t voting by mail, it’s a good idea to fill this out before you go to the polls. That way you are less likely to make last minute decisions or silly mistakes. You will also take less time in the voting booth.

5) Wake up Early on Election Day

If you aren’t going to vote by mail, try to wake up early and vote before you do anything else. Everyone waits till late in the day to vote, and the resulting lines are sometimes long. Also, once your day is a-rollin’ it may be hard to remember or find time to go vote.

6) Don’t dismiss local politics, or midterm elections

The smaller and more local the election, the greater impact your vote has. Voter turnout is historically significantly lower during midterm elections. And you can bet that the folks who want to pass something YOU don’t like are going to strike when the masses aren’t looking.

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Political dementors preying on voter apathy during the midterms

Likewise, voting in local elections may affect your everyday life far more than elections at the state or federal level. Whatever you do, don’t just randomly vote for local candidates. Take a quick look in the Voter Information Pamphlet to make sure that you don’t haphazardly vote for anyone who seems entirely unfit for office.

 

Tips 7-10: VOTING TECHNIQUES

7) Follow the (better-informed) leader

Voting can be freakin’ confusing. There are convincing arguments for and against each candidate or measure. There’s lots of jargon and legalese in the Voter Information Pamphlet. It can be hard to tell what the candidate actually stands for or what a ballot measure actually means.

for or against

Sometimes it’s smarter to just find a local politician, community member or organization that you trust and vote according to their endorsements. That’s why endorsements and voter guides exist! These people or organizations spend the time wading through all the confusing specifics so that you don’t have to.

8) Identify corporate interests

If there’s one thing that both the Tea Party and MoveOn.org can agree on, it’s that corporations have too great an influence on governance. Corporations spend tons of money during elections– often in well-disguised ways. Here are a few methods make sure you are voting for things that benefit people as opposed to solely corporate interests:

  • Where is the ad? If you see a political poster in someone’s front yard or on their car, that means that a real live individual person believes that political message. If you see a political ad on a billboard, or other commercial advertising space that means that some organization paid a lot of money to put it there.
Measure D comparison

Left: small political sign in a front yard Right: political billboard at a bus stop

That organization may be a corporation, or it may be a grassroots, people-led organization. Let’s explore this further…

  • Who supports it? All political posters and commercials need to identify who paid for them. However, in the age of PACs and non-transparent fundraising it can be hard to tell which funding source is which. Here are some general guidelines:

A) If the ad is sponsored by an organization named after ‘real’ people, like a Nurses or Teachers Association, then the ad is funded by an organization of actual people.

B) If the ad is sponsored by and organization that has ties to a specific segment of industry (e.g. the American Beverage Association, the American Resort Development Association, California Association of Realtors, etc.) the political message likely benefits that industry.

C) Sometimes an organization’s title tells you ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. For example, an ad urging you to vote “Yes” on Measure X may be sponsored by an organization called “Yes on Measure X”.

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Fine print: “Paid for by No on D, No Berkeley Beverage Tax, major funding provided by the American Beverage Association”

Sometimes organizations with names like “Yes on X” will be formed as a broad coalition of organizations, many of which are people-centric organizations with obvious people-centric titles.  If this is true, a quick web search for the organization should reveal who (which people-based organizations) support it. Always scroll to the very bottom of the webpage and see who is funding the website as well. Look for people-centric  groups, as well as industry-specific groups. If the website makes it very difficult to tell who is actually supporting X, you might as well assume its all corporate sponsors.

9) When in doubt, vote “No”

For ballot measures or propositions, voting “No” almost always means you are voting for nothing to change. That is, voting “No” keeps the status-quo: nothing new is going to happen due to that measure if it gets voted down.

It’s kind of a “Fuck yes!” or “Fuck no!” situation: if you aren’t at least 95% thrilled about a ballot proposition, you should probably vote “No”.

fuck yes

If you don’t feel like this about a ballot measure, you’re safer voting “No”

I mean, there are plenty of awesome ballot initiatives, but there are also tons of initiatives that people get on the ballot which benefit specific entities to the detriment of the public at large, initiatives that are poorly thought-out, costly, and/or completely ridiculous. It is our job as voters to shut those initiatives down.

10) It’s ok to abstain on individual votes

If you are really truly unsure how to vote on one specific office or ballot initiative, it’s ok to just leave it blank. Vote on what you feel comfortable voting on and let the rest go.  It’s better to cast a partially-filled ballot than no ballot at all.

incomplete

Whatever. You still basically get the idea

 

Some people say that voting is meaningless. That your individual vote counts for almost nothing. To them I say this:

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I don’t care about your race, gender, or background. I don’t care where your politics lie. Throughout history, from the American Revolution to the Civil War and Emancipation, to Women’s Suffrage, hella people have fought and/or died so that YOU could have the opportunity to vote.

Don’t forfeit that power. Claim it. Go vote.

 

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This post is Part 3 of our How to Citizen series. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2!