It’s 2020, and it’s your first time voting. You spring out of bed on Election Day, ready to participate in democracy, when you realize you have absolutely no idea how to do so. Maybe you’re from out of state, and you’re not registered to vote in Illinois. Maybe you didn’t know you had to turn in an absentee ballot request to vote in your home state. Or maybe you just didn’t consider that voting would be so hard. North by Northwestern is here to provide you with a guide to voting in 2020: because it shouldn’t be that hard!

Graphic by Linda Shi / North by Northwestern

2020: Not just a presidential election

If you haven’t been living under a WiFi-less rock, you’re aware that the primary season has kicked off. But presidential primaries aren’t the only thing happening. Besides House and Senate seats being up for grabs, there are elections happening all the way down to the local level - with mayoral elections happening in major cities like Baltimore and San Diego. If you don’t know what’s happening in your home state or Illinois (depending on which you want to vote in), check out your state’s website to find out what’s on the ballot in 2020.

2020 isn’t just about voting for candidates either - it’s about policies. There are 55 statewide ballot measures certified for 2020 in 24 states - issues such as the National Popular Vote Referendum, minimum wage increases and abortion funding will be on ballots in different states nationwide. If you don’t know what policies are on the ballot in your state, Ballotpedia has compiled both current 2020 ballot measures and potential measures that have yet to be added to the ballot in every state.

Voting in your home state

Unfortunately, every state has different rules surrounding the voting process. Fortunately for us, Northwestern’s Civic Engagement Center runs NUVotes, a non-partisan initiative which has this handy-dandy guide on how to vote in all 50 states. Almost every state requires you to first register to vote (check your registration status here), then mail in an absentee ballot request (get your absentee ballot request here) and then mail in your actual ballot.

Dates for primary elections can be found here - if you’re from a Super Tuesday state (that is, Alabama, American Samoa, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, or Virginia), you should probably request your absentee ballot as soon as you’re done reading this article because your primary is in less than a month!

Voting in Illinois

Let’s say you missed the absentee ballot deadline for your home state. It turns out, if you’re a college student in Illinois, you can still vote in Illinois, even if you’re not an Illinois resident. But if you are an Illinois resident, this guide is for you, too.

“College students, as affirmed by the Supreme Court, have a legal right in the United States to register and vote, either at their permanent address or their campus address,” Robert Donahue, acting director of the Center for Civic Engagement, told North by Northwestern.

Illinois has same-day registration and voting, so even if you procrastinate all the way to Illinois' primary on March 17th--or if you miss the primary, Election Day--you can still vote. Luckily for us, Illinois also has an online voter registration hub where you can register yourself--if you want to register online for the primaries, however, you have to before March 1st. You can also register at your local voting place right before you vote. At Northwestern, it’s generally Parkes Hall for South Campus residents and the Patten Gymnasium for North Campus residents. If you live off campus or want to double check, try this polling place locator. To register to vote, all you need to bring is two forms of ID - one of which shows your current address.

Illinois’ primary election is during finals week, so if you want to vote early, you can either head down to the Evanston Civic Center (also known as the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center) starting March 2 all the way through March 16 (opening hours can be found here), or vote by mail. If you wish to vote by mail, just like with absentee ballot requests, you have to first request a ballot and then turn in that ballot once it arrives in the mail.

Why you should vote

A little less than half of all eligible college students voted in 2016, and only 40% of eligible college students voted in the 2018 midterms. While these numbers are way higher than previous elections, they’re still far below the national average.

While Northwestern is much better at voting than most universities across the nation, only two-thirds of eligible Northwestern students voted in 2016 and only about half of eligible Northwestern students voted in the 2018 midterms– numbers that are around the national average but obviously don’t represent all eligible Northwestern students.

“A democracy is reliant on informed people to participate and young people aren’t participating,” Donahue said. “If young people aren’t participating, you know, what’s the old quote - we get the democracy we deserve.”

If there’s an issue you care about, if you think politics are corrupt, if you are disillusioned with our current political leaders: the easiest way to make your voice heard is to vote.

Not a US citizen? Here’s how you can still be civically engaged

Don’t worry international students - and Americans who don’t happen to have citizenship - I didn’t forget you. If you’re tearing your hair out at the state of American democracy but you are legally not allowed to vote, there are still plenty of ways you can make a difference.

“Part of what makes a healthy democracy and a healthy community that responds well to issues is a place where people hold each other to account, and people advocate for positions and politicians and policies that they support,” Donahue said. “Nothing precludes any student from participating in those conversations.”

Donahue recommended students promote registering to vote (and actually voting), organize events around issues, bring speakers to campus and participate in debates– whether formally or amongst friends.

Donahue also stressed the importance of recognizing that whatever you’re studying can make a civic difference.

“All of our disciplines, in some way, exist because of a public purpose,” Donahue said. “The things people are studying and the things they have opinions about should impact our policies, and we need to not keep them so separate.”

Editor's notes: Grace Deng is an NUVotes Ambassador. To avoid a conflict of interest, Maya Mojica interviewed Robert Donahue, acting director of the Center for Civic Engagement.

This article was updated on 2/18 to clarify that online voting registration for Illinois closes on March 1st for the Illinois primaries.