How to Vote in the 2020 Presidential Primaries While You're in College

Welcome to election season 2020! As the race heats up, it’s important to know exactly how and when to vote so your voice can be heard.

Round One: Primaries and Caucuses

A quick primer: Americans choose their candidates for the general election first, in the primaries. Before you shrug them off, the primaries are often more important than the general election. In one guaranteed to be as tight as this, every vote counts. The right (or wrong) candidate can determine the fate of the final outcome (that’s why a lot of candidates are talking about “electability” right now—they have to prove that they can beat the other side once they get there). This round is basically like training camp before the big game: It’s where you prove your worth, and let people know what you stand for.

The primaries can take two forms: a caucus, or a vote. You’ll need to register for either method, though they operate in practice differently. 

  • A caucus, similar to the Iowa caucus, is a group of people gathered (typically in someone’s home or school), to pledge their support for their favorite candidate. This awards each candidate a certain number of delegates to that candidate. Elected delegates then vote for their candidate at the nominating conventions that occur in July.
  • A primary is a preliminary election, generally held separately by party, in order to choose the candidates that become nominated for the general election at the nominating convention. The amount of votes cast (vs. pledges from a caucus) determine the number of delegates in favor of one candidate or another.
Related: Talking Politics? Here's How to Remain Civil with Friends

Registering To Vote

Generally, to be eligible to vote in a primary, you must be registered as either one party or the other. Some states do have open primaries (where it doesn’t matter what party you are), but most are closed. What this means is when you vote, you’re only able to vote for the candidates of your party. If you're a registered Democrat, when you go to the polls, you'll only be able to vote for Warren or Bernie, not for Trump or Walsh.

If you’re not sure where you stand, this comparison chart from Diffen goes through where each party usually falls on the spectrum of major issues. You can also take a detailed quiz that will assign you a specific candidate at ISideWith.com.

As a college student, you may be wondering: "Where do I register, if I go to school outside my home state?" The answer is actually up to you. If you’re passionate about what’s happening at a local level near you, or there are big issues up on the ballot, register at school. Think about where your vote will make the most impact based on what you care about and how it will affect you.

Registering to vote, and voting in the primaries, varies by state. Two great resources to use are the Campus Vote Project or Rock the Vote, which walk you through exactly what to do regardless of what state you live. This includes what proof of ID you need, deadlines to register and when to vote. All the good stuff. 

Getting Your Absentee Ballot

If you’re looking to vote back in your home state, or you’re currently studying abroad, you’ll need an absentee ballot. Absentee ballots allow all U.S. citizens at home and abroad to cast their vote. Websites like Vote.org can help you figure out how to get an absentee ballot for your state. This is completely separate from registering—make sure to do that first! After you're registered, you can apply for your absentee ballot. Then, the government will send you a ballot you can fill out. You'll need to apply for an absentee ballot separately for the primaries and for the general election, so keep that in mind.

If you’re abroad or serving overseas, Overseas Vote Foundation helps you register and get your ballot all at once. 

Some states have made it to the 21st century, but others still use “mail-in” ballots—meaning snail mail, so make sure you leave extra time once you know the deadline. This isn't something you can leave until the last minute.

Get Informed!

Most importantly, know your candidates. The Skimm has a great roundup to peruse or you can check out the recent current events surrounding the 2020 election. If you want a particular candidate to win, you have to get out and vote. Your vote does matter—typically two-thirds of eligible voters don’t vote! In the primaries, that number drops even further. 

If you care about the issues and where our country is going in the next four (and potentially eight) years, get out there and vote in the primaries!