1. You need to be registered to vote. If you're not registered, check your local library; that's where I got the paperwork. Deadlines are 30 days in advance to just a couple days in advance. If you're registered, but you don't have the little card they send you that tells you where your polling place is, you can still vote-. Bring some kind of ID. A driver's license or state ID is ideal, but a utility bill will do in a pinch. In some places, photo ID is needed.
2. Do your research ahead of time. Know who you're going to vote for, and write it down. Voting takes place in a crowded, public location where you will have to deal with lots of people and brief social interaction, plus that "new thing" feeling that you get when you're breaking your routine. Writing down your choices ahead of time is absolutely critical. Expect yourself to be at least as overloaded as you usually are in a grocery store, and plan accordingly.
3. There will usually be propositions in addition to the candidates. This is where you're voting on laws. Most of them will be pretty easy to decide on, things like renewing funding for some public program or zoning some location in one way or another. Write down which way you want to vote on those before you go, or you'll be stuck reading the actual proposition summary and trying to decide based on that.
4. Remember that you do have the right to vote. This is true even if you are intellectually disabled or non-speaking or if you need help physically using the voting machines. If this is your first time, you might want to bring a friend who can tell them that yes, you do know what you are doing, thank you very much. And if you have an aide or a service dog who will help you with voting, yes, you can bring them.
5. It's okay to abstain. If you can't decide how to cast your vote, and you want to leave the issue up to the other voters, you can simply leave your ballot blank for that vote. If you messed up and didn't research some candidates, don't randomly cast your vote; just abstain. Your votes for other candidates will still be counted.
6. Expect to wait in line. This ballot will include a presidential election, and there will be a lot more people out to vote this year than there would be in a normal year. You may have to stand for a while, and you may end up outdoors. Prepare accordingly. Bring a stim toy, blanket, or whatever else you usually use to keep it together.
7. Expect a voting procedure something like this:
- You go into the location, which is usually a public building of some type--a church, a community center, that kind of thing. Find a line of people waiting, and join it. If you join the line before the polling place closes, they have to take your vote.
- At the end of the line you'll be asked to show your voter registration card or, if you don't have it, an ID. You may be asked other questions; for example, during the primaries in Ohio, I was asked which political party I wanted to register with.
- The volunteers running the place will usually be older, and often female, and they tend to be pretty calm. If you can't catch what they're saying, ask them to repeat it. They will do some paperwork to check you off their list; then they'll let you vote.
- You may be given a card, sort of like a credit card, to insert into the voting machine. Put this in and follow the instructions on the screen.
- Return the card when you are done. In some places you might have to use a paper ballot or a mechanical voting machine rather than an electronic one. The voting procedure is a little bit different everywhere, so don't be ashamed to ask them how to use the machine.
9. Etiquette: Voting in the US is by secret ballot, and we're not allowed to try to influence each other's votes. While you're at the polling place, don't talk about who you're going to vote for, don't try to influence anybody else's vote, and don't wear clothes that advertise any party or candidate. Think of it as like being in school and taking a test: You're not allowed to look at anybody else's paper, and you're not allowed to discuss your answers. If you want to talk about who you voted for later, after you get home, you can do it--just remember that everybody has the right to keep their votes secret; if you're curious, you can ask, but they don't have to tell you--and if you do ask, it's probably polite to say something like, "You don't have to tell me, but..."
10. Expect to be exhausted afterwards. It will use up a lot of energy and a lot of brain space, because it's new and because there are a lot of other people. That's okay; it's worth it. Go home and rest.
League of Women Voters: Vote 411
Despite the name, it's not just useful for women; basically, this is an organization that teaches the general public how to vote. They're not associated with any particular political party. At this site you can get information on what's going to be on your ballot, whether you need to bring ID, and what hours your poll location will be open. It will also tell you where you need to go to vote, if you don't know already. Your polling place is also printed on your voter registration card--or, at least, it's printed on mine.
Polling place locator.
Has a nifty little map, and more information. This one's run by the Democratic Party, so they do have a section that tells you which candidates are Democrats, but their information is good.
You can even type How To Vote into Google and get instructions for your location.
And if you do vote, thank you, from a fellow American, for participating in our democracy. :)