Voting and Elections
Guide to Voting and Election Laws in the United States
Many voting laws vary by state (see our California voter rights), but here are a few things for all Americans to know about this important right.
1. Voter Qualifications
Who is eligible to vote in the U.S.?
Voter eligibility varies by state, but throughout the country you have the right to vote in federal elections if you are an American citizen at least 18 years old and have never been convicted of a felony.
However, many states have more expansive policies. Most states allow felons to vote, and some allow 17 year olds to vote in primary elections. See your state’s specific voting laws.
Can a state prohibit felons from voting?
Yes.1Richardson v Ramirez (1974)
2. Voter Intimidation
What if someone tries to intimidate me at the voting booth or prevent me from registering to vote?
You have the right to protection from intimidation or harassment in voting or attempting to vote or to register to vote.2This is protected by federal law: U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 245
3. Ballot selfies
Can I take a ballot selfie?
Taking a photo of your ballot and posting on social media is actually illegal or possibly illegal in about half the states in the country. But the states which clearly ALLOW ballot selfies are: Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.
The bans on voter selfies are generally thought to prevent vote “buying,” since the photos could be used to prove that a ballot was cast for a certain candidate or proposition. But some courts have struck down the bans as a violation of the 1st amendment right to free expression. It remains to be seen whether the bans will be struck down across the country.
4. Other voting laws
As mentioned above, different states have different rules about who can vote and how. You can find out more about your state’s voting laws here. But there are some laws states are NOT allowed to have, such as the following:
Is it legal to have literacy or other tests for voter eligibility?
No. Federal law prohibits all literacy tests or any “proof of good moral character” as a way to determine eligibility for voting. In the past these tests have been used as an attempt to limit voting by racial minorities.
Is it legal to require ID to vote or register to vote?
It’s still unsettled law. Some Voter ID laws have been upheld, others have not.3Voting Rights Act of 1965, codified at 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a); U.S. Constitution, 14th amendment A law requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote was recently struck down.
5. Setting voter district boundaries
How do voter districts get created?
States have the right to determine district lines, including for Congress, the state legislatures, and other districts. In most states the state legislature creates the district maps, but some states (such as California) have created independent commissions to do this.
Are states allowed to create any weird looking, crazy districts they want (gerrymandering)?
Generally, yes, states have lots of freedom to “gerrymander” or create odd shaped districts. This is often done for political reasons to help keep the incumbents in office. “Partisan gerrymandering” is currently legally acceptable. But “racial gerrymandering” (creating districts based on the racial makeup of the area) is unconstitutional unless it is designed to empower a minority group.4Shaw v Reno (1993)
6. Electoral College
What is the Electoral College?
This is the somewhat complicated process for how the president actually gets elected in the United States. Each state gets a certain number of electoral votes based on its population. In general, the winner of the popular vote in each state gets awarded the state’s electoral votes. Then, designated Electors (yes these are real people) actually cast the final ballots for president.
Can the Electors act on their own or must they follow their state’s decision on the presidential election?
When Electors vote differently from how their state votes, this is called being a “faithless elector.” Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that electors do not have a right to act on their own, and states may penalize and/or remove these faithless electors.
Protect Your Rights
If you have been subject to any intimidation or harassment in voting, you can contact the U.S. Department of Justice.
|↑1||Richardson v Ramirez (1974)|
|↑2||This is protected by federal law: U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 245|
|↑3||Voting Rights Act of 1965, codified at 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a); U.S. Constitution, 14th amendment|
|↑4||Shaw v Reno (1993)|