Man and woman drinking wine looking at laptop

Vote at Home Tips for Newbies: Ballot Party, Anyone?

It’s possible that, like many of this year’s voters, you’re voting from home for the first time. Good for you. You may even be voting for first time, period. Even better. There’s a lot of good reasons to vote at home – safety in the midst of a pandemic being the main one these days. Another great reason is convenience: a vote at home ballot can be mailed in any time after it’s been received as long as it’s well before the November 3 election. (We’ll discuss when to actually mail in the ballot in a minute, but ASAP is a good rule of thumb.)

We at US Vote think there’s a third reason – though admittedly we’re biased. A real ballot, unfolded on your kitchen table, is actually pretty cool. Ballots are the raw material of democracy, the warp and weft of our society. Each one is collection of civic lessons, the blueprint for a civic society. A teaching and learning moment.

But we digress.

For those of you who might actually be voting for the first time, be prepared to be confused: Sorry, our democracy is a bit messy, and not only are the ballots themselves confusing, the information packets that come with them aren’t always as helpful as they should be. We’ve seen plenty of county guides that contradict state guides, with information about candidates that don’t necessarily apply to the ballot in front of you. Sometimes there’s nothing about a candidate, race or referendum at all – unfortunately. We warned you it could be messy.

This is why having the actual ballot in front of you is so helpful: it shows exactly what you’re supposed to be voting on based on your jurisdiction. Also, it’s usually printed on pretty hefty paper, much more than the flimsy voting guides, which gives a ballot a certain gravitas that lends an air of …… sorry, more digression.

The complexity of what’s on the ballot is why convening a ballot party can be a great idea, though it’s probably best to do this online instead of in person during the current pandemic season. Here’s the formula: organize a group of friends and ask each of them to research a specific issue, or race, or proposition, and then get the gang together and have each person present the pros and cons, as appropriate, for each candidate or issue.

Be sure to have snacks and drinks handy, this could take a while.

A ballot party can be particularly useful for complex propositions or referenda, or those more obscure races for judge, transit district supervisor, or dog catcher. In many jurisdictions these down ballot offices are non-partisan, and with no specific political party pulling for the candidates it can be hard to find good objective information on them. Some careful research and a careful reading of the candidates’ positions and endorsements may be the only way to make sense of who to vote for.

So where to get information on the candidates and issues on the ballot? Have a look at the US Vote Sample Ballot Lookup Tool. Local newspapers – if you still have one – or their online replacements usually endorse local candidates and issues and can be a great resource, though they won’t always be entirely objective. If there is a particular advocacy organization you’re a member of or following, check their website. They often have suggestions and endorsements that are intended to align with their membership’s sentiments. Some voters rely on the advocacy groups they follow for a significant amount of advice, and as some of these groups publicize their support on candidate websites and even in voting guides, seeing what your favorite group is supporting, or not, can be a good shortcut to know which way to vote. 

A ballot party invite is also a great opportunity to put a little pressure on friends who you think might not want to vote or are otherwise sitting on the fence about this year’s election. Inviting them to be part of discussion of the issues and the candidates – in a party-like setting – may hopefully stimulate their interest in voting. Complexity and confusion are often cited as a reason why people don’t vote, all the more reason why a ballot party is a good way to break the ice with a reluctant voter.

And if there are any children around, just showing them what a ballot looks like and setting an example by filling it out in front of them is a great DIY civics lesson for the next generation of voters.

Now to the issue of when to send in that ballot. Get started as soon as possible by requesting your vote-at-home ballot NOW! You can click the tab in the upper right hand corner of the US Vote website, create a secure voter account, and get started. (Go ahead, we’ll wait).

And don’t have a ballot party a couple of days before the election, even if you live in a jurisdiction that lets you drop off your ballot in a drop box or polling place. The US mail may not be as swift as usual this year, so if you’re mailing your ballot ensure plenty of time – 10 business days is ideal, earlier if possible. And if you live in a state with ballot tracking, sign up as well. That way you can watch your vote as it moves through the process and finally gets tallied.

Finally, if you’re convening a ballot party, or even doing a solo ballot party, please send us a snapshot: our new This Is My Polling Place initiative would love to post pictures of what voting in 2020 looks like. Kitchen tables, coffee tables, sundecks, the living room floor: wherever you vote, however you vote, is fine by us. Just as long as you vote…..