College Student Voting: The Most Important Thing You'll Do This Year is Vote

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

In November, you have the chance to make a difference. All it takes is a trip to your local polling station or your mailbox.   If you are 18 or older (or you will be by November 3, 2020), it’s time to vote in what could be the most historic and important election in your lifetime.   By voting as a student, you get a voice in the country’s future. You also send a message that college students are invested in making the world a better place for everyone. If you – and many other people your age – show up at the polls this year, our elected officials will be forced to consider the interests and concerns of college students when they get to work in January, 2021.   Historically, college students have sat out elections. This has been changing since the 2016 presidential election. In fact, the number of college students who voted in the 2018 midterm elections was more than double compared to 2014, according to a Tufts study.    That shift is important. Because when college students don’t vote, politicians don’t spend a lot of time listening to young people they don’t have to.   We know that younger voters do care about a lot of issues. In fact, almost 30% of 18-21-year-olds have participated in a protest, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University’s Tisch College. Unfortunately, it takes more than marching to enact real change. That’s where voting comes in.   It’s not too late to register to vote in November. Here’s everything you need to make sure that this year your vote counts.   Photo by Element5 Digital

How do I register to vote?

If you haven’t registered to vote, that’s your first step. Forty-nine states require you to register. (If you live in North Dakota, you don’t have to worry about registering. It’s the only state without registered voting.)   There are different voter registration requirements by state. They include registering in person, by mail, online, and through voter registration drives. You can find out your state’s registration process at You should receive a Voter Registration Card once the process is complete.   When you register, you’ll be asked to select a party affiliation. If you don’t want to choose a particular party, you can register as an Independent. Your party affiliation does not mean you have to vote that way. It just means you’ve registered as someone who generally identifies as a member of that particular party.   Keep in mind that some state and local elections will prohibit you from voting in party primaries if you are not registered in that party.  

Am I even eligible to vote?

If you are a permanent legal resident of the United States who is over 18 years old, you are probably eligible to vote.   Certain exceptions do exist. Some types of felonies on your record will prohibit you from voting. And in some cases, a person may be declared mentally incapacitated and therefore ineligible.  

What do I need to bring with me (or scan) to register?

States have different requirements for what you need to present to register. You’ll need some kind of proof of identity (like a driver’s license or state-issued ID card). If you don’t have a driver’s license, you may be asked to provide the last four digits of your social security number.   If your driver’s license is from another state – and you are registering to vote in the state where you go to college as a student – you’ll need proof of your current address to show that you are living there.   Photo by Element5 Digital

If I'm a student voter, which state should I register in?

If you are going to college in one state, but your permanent home address is in another, you can (usually) decide which state you want to vote in. You just can’t vote in both.   Check both states to see what the requirements are. Then you can make your decision. If one state is a swing state, you may want to cast your vote there. Or you may base your decision because you're in a down-ballot state, or because local elections matter to you.   If you don’t plan to live in the state where you are attending college, it probably doesn’t make sense to register there. It’s a pain to change your official residence, if you're required to do so to vote, and it’s not something you want to do again in a few years when you graduate.  

How do I vote in my home state if I don’t live there at the moment?

If you prefer to vote in your home state, but you are a student in a different state, you’ll want to contact your home state’s election office right away. First, you’ll need to confirm that you are registered to vote. If you aren’t, register.   Second, you’ll want to sign up to receive an absentee ballot and provide your college address. Every state allows absentee ballots, but some states do require you to have a valid excuse. (Don’t worry: Being away at a college is generally considered a good reason to get an absentee ballot).   If you live on campus, and you sign up for an absentee ballot, make sure you provide your full dorm address, not just the college address. That means you need to include your residence hall and your room number. The state has to ensure that the ballot is going to you and nobody else.   If by chance you plan to be in your home state on the day of the election, you can vote at your polling location. Just make sure you know where it is.   Photo by Element5 Digital

Can I vote by mail?

Even if you aren’t submitting an absentee ballot, some states will allow you to vote by mail to avoid the polls. That could be particularly important this year because of the coronavirus. You may not want to risk being around people as you stand in line to cast your vote.   Nine states (and the District of Columbia) automatically send mail-in ballots after you register to vote: California, Vermont, Nevada, Montana, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Utah. Several other states allow voters to apply for mail-in voting.   If you do vote by mail, be sure you send your ballot back as soon as you get it, so that you don’t forget. Your ballot must be filled out properly and postmarked by the day of the election.   Your city might have secure places to drop your ballot if you prefer not to use the mail. Libraries, senior centers, and colleges often have drop boxes.  

Is voting by mail safe?

Voting by mail is considered safe. While ballot fraud does occasionally happen, no credible evidence exists that it’s a widespread problem. Just like voting at a polling station, there’s always a risk of something going wrong, but independent audits of states with mass mail-in voting show no evidence of voter fraud.  

Where can I vote in person?

If you like the idea of going to the polls to vote in person, you can still do that. Once you register, you’ll get information about what district you are in. You’ll also be assigned a polling location. Your college might be a place where you vote, whether or not you're living on campus. If not, you may be assigned to a church, public school, or community center.   If you plan to go to the polls, check to see if your state offers early voting several days before Election Day. You’re less likely to run into a crowd if you go before the last day. If you do head out on Election Day, look at the hours of your polling station and plan to go early.   Whatever time you go, bring a supply kit including a mask. You might be standing outside for some of the time, so pack a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and water too.  

Who should I vote for?

That’s a question only you can answer. Read up on the elections and candidates before you vote (whether by mail or in-person). Think carefully about the issues that matter most to you. Remember that federal student aid, dependent health insurance until the age of 26, and arts and sciences funding probably all affect you daily.   Be informed. Be heard. Go vote.  

Voting resources: - For the most up to date information on the coronavirus and how it affects the polls in your state, how to register to vote, and much more. ISideWith - If you're unsure who to vote for, take the quiz here to see how your beliefs line up with the presidential candidates RocktheVote - The most extensive list of questions you might have in regards to voting