Voting is a process by which a person or a group of people expresses an opinion formally or officially. People vote in many situations (such as when students elect class officers at school). But voting usually refers to the act of citizens choosing candidates for public office or deciding on public issues and laws. In the United States, people vote at the local, state, and federal (national) levels.

Voting in the United States

To vote in the United States, one must be a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old on election day. States also require various periods of residency before voting is permitted. Most states have two other rules as well: A voter cannot be a felon (someone who has committed a serious crime) or mentally incompetent.

In all states, voting is free. It is also voluntary; no one can be forced to vote. It is also a crime to try to stop another person from voting. Voting is private — no one can see how another person votes. And a person may vote only once in any election.

Each state, county, city, or ward (division of a city) is divided into voting districts called precincts. Before voting, people must register to vote in the precinct where they live. This consists of filling out a form with one's name, address, and other information. Registration ensures that people vote in the right place. People can usually register by mail.

Registration laws vary from state to state. In some states, citizens can register on election day. Typically, however, the registration deadline is several weeks before this. If a person fails to register in time, he or she will not be allowed to vote. Some states may require re-registration if a citizen misses a certain number of elections or changes address.

On election day, most voters go to a polling place to cast their ballots. This is usually a public building, such as a school, recreation center, city hall, or firehouse. Voters present themselves to the poll workers, provide identification, and receive the materials needed to vote.

Elections may take place at many different times. In the United States, general elections (for federal officials) are held every two years in even-numbered years. They are held on the Tuesday that falls between November 2 and 8.

In most cases, people vote by machine in private voting booths. Because elections in the United States are generally run by state and local governments, many kinds of voting machines and devices are in use. Today these have become increasingly computerized. A voter may touch a computer screen to cast a ballot or may fill out a computer-readable paper form.

People can also vote by mail; they submit what is known as an absentee ballot. Absentee ballots are especially useful for those who have difficulty getting to the polling place or who are away from their hometowns on election day.

After all the votes have been cast, poll workers and election officials count them (usually with help from computers) and declare which candidates and ballot measures (votes on public issues) have won. (For more information, see the article Elections.)

Winning the Right to Vote

In the early days of the United States, only about 120,000 people in a total population of more than 4 million could vote. Voting was usually limited to free white men who owned property and met certain religious qualifications. Eventually the right to vote became more widespread. By 1860 almost every state allowed all white men over 21 to vote.

After the Civil War (1861–65) the 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave the vote to men of all races. In practice, however, most black people in the South did not gain the right to vote until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women, after a long political struggle, won the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

The right to vote has been further extended in recent decades. In 1971 the 26th Amendment to the Constitution gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. More recently, federal law has guaranteed the vote to people with disabilities and to those whose first language is not English.

Another important advance in the voting process has been the secret ballot. This allows people to vote without worrying about retaliation from others, including those in power. At one time, voting was not private. Before the Civil War, U.S. citizens often said their votes out loud or voted by raising their hands. After the Civil War, printed ballots became common. However, since these were distributed by individual candidates or parties and were often different colors or shapes, it was usually possible to tell whom someone was voting for.

It was not until the 1890s, when the Australian ballot came into use, that voting became truly secret. Under this system (so named for its earlier use in Australia), the names of all qualifying candidates were printed on a single ballot by the government. These could only be distributed at polling places, where voting was done in private booths. The use of voting machines has further ensured the secrecy of the vote.

Voting Today

In the United States, voter turnout — the percentage of qualified voters who vote — often depends on the type of election being held. More people tend to vote in presidential elections than in other kinds. Even in this case, though, many people who are qualified to vote do not. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, only 51 percent of the electorate (all qualified voters) turned out.

This was not considered unusual. But other voting issues during the 2000 election drew considerable public attention. Significant flaws in the voting process were revealed when the vote in Florida required a recount that lasted for 36 days. A close examination of the results showed that thousands of people had voted incorrectly. Thousands of other votes were unclear.

In fact, experts believe that between 1 and 4 percent of all votes are not counted as the voter intended. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to help eliminate voting errors and to give states money to improve their voting systems. However, some computer experts and citizens' groups continue to question the accuracy of computerized voting machines.

In 2004, a proposal to allow military personnel and other U.S. citizens living abroad to vote via the Internet was canceled after computer experts tested the process and found that it would be impossible to prevent hackers from tampering with election results.

Kay J. Maxwell
President, League of Women Voters of the United States


How to Cite This Article

MLA (Modern Language Association) Style:

Maxwell, Kay J. "Voting." The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Online, 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. (use the date you accessed this page)

Chicago Manual of Style:

Maxwell, Kay J. "Voting." The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Online (accessed October 12, 2015). (use the date you accessed this page)

APA (American Psychological Association) Style:

Maxwell, K. J. (2015). Voting. The New Book of Knowledge. Retrieved October 12, 2015, from Grolier Online (use the date you accessed this page)


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