Voters cast ballots at a precinct in Weaverville on Election Day in 2016. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

North Carolina voters over the next few weeks will choose members of Congress, the General Assembly, county commissions, sheriffs, school boards and many other local offices across North Carolina. They will also be asked to decide on adoption of amendments to the state constitution. Local initiatives, such as bond measures, changes in alcohol sales rules, or local option sales taxes, may appear on the ballot in some locations.

Whatever your politics and whatever you may think of the names on the ballot, the people who will lead in these positions will be selected. The amendments will also either become state law or be rejected, in some cases with results that could affect the way North Carolinians live, govern themselves and conduct business for many years. It’s up to you to decide whether you will sit this one out, or participate in the democratic process.

If you are planning to vote, here are five things to do, some of them immediately, before you go to the polls:

1. Be sure that you are properly registered to vote

This one you should do right away because time is running out. In most North Carolina counties, registration closes at 5 p.m., Friday, Oct. 12. In counties with declared disasters due to Hurricane Florence, that has been extended to 5 p.m., Monday, Oct. 15. Check with your county elections office if you are uncertain.

You may believe that you are already registered. But you should check to be certain that you haven’t mistakenly been dropped from the voter rolls and to be sure that your current address is listed.

The NC Board of Elections provides a useful lookup tool on its website that will allow you to check. The website doesn’t limit you to looking up your own data, so you can also check on other family members.

In checking your registration, your address is especially important in many counties, where it will affect which congressional, legislative and local board seats you will pick. Sometimes just being listed on the wrong side of the street or the wrong block can be enough to push you into the wrong district. The address listed should be where you live, even if you are highly interested in voting in the outcome of a race somewhere else. Knowingly voting in the wrong district is against the law and could land you in trouble if you are caught, so be sure your address is accurate and up to date.

If you aren’t registered or find a problem with your registration, the NC Board of Elections also provides a link to a voter registration form you can print out, along with instructions for completing it. You have to physically sign the form, so submitting it electronically .

Normally, mailing the form to your local elections office is recommended. As long as it’s postmarked by Oct. 12 (or by Oct. 15 in counties with extended deadlines), you should be fine on Election Day. However, the safest option may be to hand deliver your registration form to make sure that it arrives on time. You also don’t have to download the Internet form, but can show up at your county election office and fill out the form there before the deadline.

For those planning to vote early, some slightly different registration rules apply. You can register, or change your registration on the same day that you vote early. However, you will also have to present documentary evidence of your address if you register this way. The N.C. Board of Elections lists the documents you can use for this purpose on its website. For early voting more generally, see additional guidance under No. 4 below.

One of the choice you will be asked to make when registering is to select your party affiliation. You do not have to stick with a previous affiliation, but can change it when you register or update your address. In North Carolina, you can register with the Constitutional, Democratic, Green, Libertarian or Republican parties or you can choose to be unaffiliated. Your party choice matters during a primary election, but not in this fall’s General Election. You can vote for any candidates you wish in each race regardless of party affiliation and regardless of how you voted in the primary.

2. Get a sample ballot based on where you live

A sample ballot will help you make sense of which races will be on your ballot this year and which won’t. You may see tons of political signs near your home supporting a certain candidate, but that’s no guarantee that you actually will see them on your ballot. By getting a sample ballot and reading over it in advance, you can plan your votes ahead and not risk becoming confused over so many contests and names when you go to the polls.

There are several good ways to obtain a sample ballot. You can visit your county election office and request one based on your address. Using the same lookup tool described above, you can request and print out your appropriate sample ballot for this year. If you use this tool, be sure to click on the ballot for the Nov. 6 General Election and not the one for the May 8, Primary Election.

Some political groups hand out pre-marked sample ballots. These just represent each group’s opinions. Other groups will have opposite opinions. You may want to look at these ballots in helping you decide which way to vote, but they are not a replacement for a sample ballot that will actually show you which contests are relevant to your address.

3. Study the candidates and amendments to make voting decisions in advance

With a sample ballot in hand, take some time before you vote to learn what you can about the candidates. The Internet can be a great tool for this. Check out their campaign websites to see what they claim to stand for, which group of voters they are trying to appeal to and what they might have said about their opponents. Talk about the candidates with family members and friends you respect to see what they think.

Read your local newspaper to see whether candidates are making news for things they have done or views they have expressed. For any local ballot initiatives, local news sources are among your best options for learning about what is it stake.

Many newspapers also publish endorsements or other opinion pieces that may present useful arguments for how to vote. Think about whether you usually agree or disagree with the viewpoints expressed in your newspaper before deciding on how endorsements should affect your vote. Some people do exactly what their favorite newspaper recommends. Some voters do exactly the opposite of the endorsements in a local newspaper that they love to hate. Many other voters consider the quality of the arguments each opinion article makes and use these ideas in making their own decisions.

Carolina Public Press is preparing a report for next week on the statewide amendment proposals. This should help in understanding what each amendment would or wouldn’t do, who is behind the amendment, who is against it, and why some amendments might be divisive among people who ordinarily agree on political questions. Look for this report ahead of going to the polls.

4. Decide on your voting method and find your polling location

Your options will be different depending on whether you plan to vote early or vote on Election Day, which is Tuesday, Nov. 6 this year.

Early voters can go to the polls at any early voting station in their county between Tuesday, Oct. 17 and Saturday, Nov. 3. Check with your county elections office for early voting locations in your area.

Those voting on Election Day can use the lookup tool described above to identify the right place to vote. You can also call or visit your county elections office and ask them to look up the right polling place for you.

Voting early and voting on Election Day each have their pros and cons.

If you vote early, you won’t risk having an emergency or unexpected conflict on Election Day. Voting lines on Election Day are often unusually long, though sometimes early voting lines are longer than might be convenient. For many people, their polling place for Election Day is near their home, but voting at an early voting site near their place of work might be more convenient.

However, if you vote early, you do run the risk of locking in your vote ahead of news that might change your decision – a candidate might say something outrageous, be arrested or even die before Election Day. If you vote on Election Day, you will have the maximum amount of time to study the candidates and amendments and think carefully about the best choices. The answer on which way to vote will be different for each person, but the key is to plan ahead.

5. Figure out how you will get to the polls, when and with whom

This is an important step, whether you are voting on Election Day or going early.

If you will be driving yourself, decide whether you will go by yourself, with other family member or with friends. If you don’t drive, find someone to give you a ride to the polls.

Think about your work schedule on the day you plan to vote and be sure that you will have made the proper arrangement with your workplace, picking up your children, or whatever other responsibilities you might have so that everything will go smoothly.

Some voters bring underage children with them to the polls so that they can observe and learn about the democratic process. Other voters don’t want that sort of distraction. Think about this sort of thing ahead of time.

Some voters may need assistance in casting a ballot. In North Carolina, you have the right to have a person of your choosing assist you, but that person does not have the right to tell you how to vote. Having help may be especially important if you have visual impairment, dyslexia or some other disability that could make it difficult to read and mark the ballot. If you believe you will want assistance in voting, plan ahead to ask someone you know and trust to accompany you and provide this help.


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Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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