Voting rights: What to know for the 2020 election

Hand holding up a voting sticker to illustrate voting rightsImage: Hand holding up a voting sticker to illustrate voting rights

In a Nutshell

If the polling place closes while you’re standing in line, can you still cast your vote? What if a poll worker tells you you’re not registered? Don’t let uncertainty stand in the way of your voting rights. Here’s what to know for Election Day 2020.
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Voting is a fundamental right of American democracy — one that extends to virtually every American citizen 18 and older. But that hasn’t always been the case.

In the early years of the country, many states limited voting to white land-owning males.

Throughout the century after the Civil War, a series of judicial decisions and amendments to the U.S. Constitution expanded that right to other groups.

But modern disinformation — especially on social media — can make it difficult to sort out exactly what your voting rights are. Let’s fix that. Read on to learn the facts about your voting rights.

What are my basic rights as a voter?

Today, adult U.S. citizens have the right to vote no matter their race, religion, sex, disability or sexual orientation, largely thanks to the Voting Rights Act. The act aimed to boost the number of people registered to vote in areas where there had been a history of discrimination.

Enacted in 1965, the law was created to ensure that state and local governments don’t put up barriers that would hinder a person’s right to vote. The Voting Rights Act established the right of every eligible citizen to take part in our democratic process by …

  • Outlawing literacy tests
  • Preventing municipalities from denying citizens the right to vote based on race, color or, in some cases, language
  • Providing for the appointment of federal examiners in areas with a history of discriminatory practices
  • Requiring designated jurisdictions with a history of suppressing minority votes to obtain federal approval before changing voting rules — a process known as “preclearance.” But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this provision, ruling that nine states under federal oversight could change their election laws without advance federal approval.

Who can vote?

Federal elections, which occur every two years, are run by state and local governments. In order to vote in federal, state or local elections, you must …

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Be 18 years old on or before Election Day (in most states, you can register to vote before you turn 18 if you’ll be 18 by Election Day)
  • Meet your state’s residency rules (if you’re homeless, you can still register and vote in all 50 states)
  • Register to vote by your state’s voter registration deadline (only North Dakota doesn’t require voter registration)

Who can’t vote?

Although the basic requirements to vote are simple, not all people who live in the U.S. are eligible. Here’s who can’t vote.

  • Non-citizens, including permanent legal residents
  • Some people with felony convictions (laws vary by state)
  • U.S. citizens living in U.S. territories — American Samoa, Guam, the North Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands — can’t vote in a general election for president

Do voting rights vary by state?

States have the authority to set qualifications and rules for voting in federal elections. Regulations vary for those with felony convictions as well as for people with mental disabilities.

Visit your state’s election office website to find out more about local voting rights.

People convicted of a felony

Although it used to be common practice to deny people convicted of a felony the right to vote, some states have been acting to reinstate that right over the past few decades. Today, depending on the state they live in, people with felony convictions may …

  • Retain their right to vote, even while they’re incarcerated
  • Lose their right to vote while they’re incarcerated, but regain voting rights once they’re released
  • Lose their voting rights while in prison and for some time after release, typically while on parole or probation
  • Lose their voting rights indefinitely. This is sometimes limited to people who commit specific crimes. In such situations, a governor’s pardon, a waiting period or some other action may be required to regain the right to vote.

People with cognitive disabilities

Rules vary, but in 39 states and Washington, D.C., judges have the authority to deny voting rights to those deemed legally incompetent because of cognitive disabilities or mental illness.

One important note: A voter with a mental disability cannot be turned away from the polls because a poll worker thinks they are not “qualified” to vote.

For more information, visit this resource for state laws affecting voting rights for the mentally disabled prepared by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in 2016.

How have voting rights changed over time?

As a franchise, the right to vote is one of Americans’ most cherished freedoms. But today’s voting rights look very different from what was first set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

Although the Constitution stands as the foundation of the federal government, the founding fathers created a “living” document that is flexible and allows for changes over time. This malleability has allowed voting laws to be revised throughout America’s history with the passage of new laws and constitutional amendments.

Amendments to the U.S. Constitution affecting voting rights

  • 15th Amendment: Ratified in 1870, this granted African American men the right to vote. But poll taxes and literacy tests effectively disenfranchised many African Americans. And Native Americans were still denied the right to vote.
  • 19th Amendment: Ratified in 1920, this guaranteed women the right to vote.
  • 24th Amendment: Ratified in 1962, this outlawed the poll tax as a voting requirement in federal elections.
  • 26th Amendment: Ratified in 1971, this established 18 as the voting age.

Federal voting rights laws

Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1870 to help enforce provisions of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited states from denying anyone the right to vote based on race. Subsequent civil rights acts in 1957, 1960 and 1964 provided further protections against discrimination in voting.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned voter discrimination based on race, color or minority-language group, and required election materials in languages other than English in some places. Other federal actions since then have included helping members of the U.S. armed forces as well as overseas U.S. voters register and vote by mail.

What should I know about voter suppression?

Voter suppression can take many forms, including civil rights violations like voter intimidation, coercion, threats and other tactics to thwart a person’s ability to vote. Many also see it in government policy, such as closing polling stations in predominantly minority neighborhoods, or requiring voter ID. A 2016 study from the University of San Diego found “substantial drops in turnout for minorities under strict voter ID laws.” Voter suppression can even be unintentional, due to things like malfunctioning voting equipment and voter confusion.

If you witness voter suppression or suspect it is occurring, you should take action.

Voting rights FAQs

If I’m in line when the polling place closes, can I still vote?

If the polls close while you’re still in line, stay in line — you have the right to vote.

A poll worker says my name or address doesn’t match (or is missing from) their list of registered voters. Can I still vote?

Yes. Voters are entitled to a provisional ballot, even if they aren’t in the poll book.

I use a wheelchair. Does my polling place have to be accessible?

Federal law requires all polling places for federal elections be fully accessible to older adults and voters with disabilities. And every polling place must have at least one voting system that allows voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently.

I can’t make it to the polling place on Election Day. Can I still vote?

If you can’t vote in person on Election Day, you may be able to vote early or by absentee or vote-by-mail ballot. Some states allow any voter to vote absentee; others have stricter requirements.

I made a mistake on my ballot. Can I correct it?

Yes. If you make a mistake on your ballot, simply ask for a new one.

I can’t figure out the polling machine. Can I still vote?

Yes. Alert a poll worker if you need help.

I don’t speak English well. Can I still vote?

Yes. Under federal law, voters who have difficulty reading or writing English may receive in person assistance at the polls from a person they choose. This person can’t be the voter’s employer, an agent of the voter’s employer, or an agent or officer of the voter’s union.

About the author: Brad Hanson is a senior editor at Credit Karma. His 30 years of experience in print and digital media includes work for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, and Polyvore. Most recently before… Read more.