Bob Daemmrich/PhotoEdit Inc

People using the voting booths in their local voting center

Voting is a process by which people formally make a choice. People vote in many situations. Students vote to elect class officers, for example. But voting is most important in democratic government. Citizens vote to elect public officials. They also vote to decide public issues.

Voting in the United States

In the United States, people vote at the local, state, and federal (national) level. Citizens age 18 or older may vote. The states set more rules. They require periods of living in a particular place. In most states a voter cannot be mentally unfit or a felon. (A felon is someone who has committed a serious crime.) State rules differ on whether felons regain their voting rights.

Voting is free in all states. No one can be forced to vote. It is a crime to try to stop someone from voting. Voting is private. A person may vote only once in any election.

Each state, county, city, or ward (division of a city) is divided into voting districts. The districts are called precincts. People must register in the precinct where they live before voting. In some states they can register on Election Day. But usually they must register several weeks earlier.

Elections are held at various times. General elections (for federal officials) take place every two years. Election Day is the Tuesday that falls between November 2 and 8.

On Election Day, polling places are set up in each precinct. Voters present themselves to the poll workers. They provide identification. And they receive their voting materials.

Generally, people vote by machine in private booths. The machine records the voter's choice. There are many kinds of voting machines. Each state decides what kind it will use. Today computerized voting is widespread. Voters fill out a computer-readable paper form. Or they may touch a computer screen to vote.

Voting machines are designed to produce prompt and accurate counts. They are meant to reduce cheating and error. Voting machines must allow people to vote in private. People must also be able to vote for a person whose name is not shown. And they must be able to change their choices before placing the vote. Voting machines must have safeguards that prevent votes from being manipulated.

People also vote by mail. After all votes are cast, they are added up. Then the winners are announced.

Winning the Right to Vote

In the early United States most people could not vote. There were more than 4 million Americans. But only about 120,000 could vote. Voting was usually limited to free white men with property. By 1860 most states allowed all white men over age 21 to vote.

After the Civil War (1861–65) men of all races gained voting rights. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution accomplished this. Women won the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. In 1971 the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Federal laws help ensure Americans can exercise their voting rights. People with disabilities must be able to vote. So must those whose first language is not English.

Voting was not private in the early United States. Citizens often said their votes out loud. Or they raised their hands. After the Civil War, printed ballots became common. But the ballots were distributed by individual candidates or parties. They were often different colors or shapes. It was easy to see how someone voted.

Voting was not truly secret until the 1890s. Then the government began to issue ballots. The ballots showed the names of all the candidates. They were distributed only at polling places. And voting was done in private booths.

Protecting the Right to Vote

In 1957 and 1960, Congress passed laws protecting African American voters. But, in the presidential elections of 1964, they continued to have difficulty registering to vote. Voter registration drives met with bitter, sometimes violent, opposition. In March 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize the issue. Soon after, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a voting rights bill to Congress. Congress passed the bill. It became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Act enabled the U.S. attorney general to send federal examiners to help register African American voters. It also suspended literacy tests in some states. The law had an immediate impact. By the end of 1965 about 250,000 new African American voters were registered. The Act was strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law extending it for 25 years.

In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Act in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The Court decided that states with histories of voter bias did not need federal preapproval to change their election laws. The ruling affected nine states, mostly in the South.

Chief Justice John Roberts explained the Court's decision. He noted improvements in voting conditions in the affected states. So federal preapproval was no longer needed. President Barack Obama criticized the Court's decision. He called for new legislation to protect equal access to the polls for all voters.

Current Challenges

States differ in what they require citizens to provide in order to vote. Some ask for a simple proof of signature. Others ask for non-photo identification. Examples include bank statements and phone bills. Stricter states require government-issued photo identification, such as a driver's license. Some states requiring photo identification allow a resident to vote without it. But the resident must swear to his or her identity. In similar cases in other states, residents may not vote at all.

The 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 affected voter identification. It made it easier for some states to pursue stricter voter identification laws. They argued that stricter laws prevented people not entitled to vote from voting. Critics responded that that type of voter fraud rarely occurred. They also argued that requiring government-issued photo identification discouraged or prevented some groups from voting. They cited the poor, minorities, and the elderly, who were less likely to have such identification.

In 2014 some members of Congress proposed reversing the changes the Court had made to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They wanted to reestablish federal preapproval of electoral law changes in states covered by the Act. The proposed legislation did not win Congressional support. But the states were still obliged to obey federal laws protecting each citizen's constitutional right to vote. State laws that interfere with that right may be challenged and overturned in state and federal courts.

Voting Patterns and Systems

Voter turnout is the percent of qualified voters who actually vote. In the United States, turnout is usually highest in presidential elections. Even then, many qualified voters do not vote. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, only 51 percent of qualified voters voted.

The 2000 election also revealed flaws in the voting process. The vote in Florida required a recount that lasted for 36 days. Thousands of people had voted incorrectly. Thousands of other votes were unclear.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). It's goal was to help eliminate voting errors. The HAVA offered states $3.86 billion in federal funds to improve their voting systems. Improvements included replacing outdated voting equipment; improving election administration; and recruiting poll workers. Congress has so far approved $3.5 billion in HAVA spending.

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