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January 25, 2022

Voting Rights

Missing Mail-In Ballot

Q: What should I do if I do not receive a mail-in ballot and how to know if my ballot is received? Chris from California

A: Some states (including California) send mail-in ballots to all voters, but others require voters to request a ballot. If you don’t receive your ballot in time to mail it back in by the deadline, you should call the election authorities right away. Usually it’s well publicized how long it should take to receive your ballot. Be sure to follow all the instructions for filling out and returning your mail-in ballot. Many states have  tracking systems where you can receive emails or texts at every stage of the process. They tell you when they send the ballot to you and when they receive it back. This varies from state to state, so call your state or county election office or visit your state or county website. 

Polling Place Issues

Q: What do I do if the polling station denies my right to vote?  Olivia from California

A: The most important thing is to find out why, and how to solve the problem if you can, including having a poll worker contact a supervisor. You can call an election help hotline for assistance, such as 1-866-OUR-VOTE.  For example, if they won’t let you vote because they can’t find your registration, there may be documents you can provide to prove you’re registered, supply missing information, or confirm your address.  (It’s always wise to bring proof of your voter registration, name, and address to the polling station.) If the officials say you are at the wrong precinct, you can try to get to the right precinct and vote. As a last resort insist on casting a provisional ballot. In most states, some or all votes on a provisional ballot are not counted unless and until your right to vote at that polling station is verified. If you must cast a  provisional ballot, there will be instructions for what to do next and a number to call to find out if your vote was counted or not. 

Political Beliefs and Employment

Q: If I am currently employed can my employer lay me off based off my political association? Raymond from California

A: Some cities and states (like California) have laws that expressly prohibit discrimination against employees based on political activities. Check your state laws. Absent a state law, and as a general matter, a private employer can discriminate based on political beliefs. 

The Electoral College

Q: What is the Electoral College? Isabella  from California , and  Q: Why don't all states have the same number of votes? an elementary student from Oregon

A: The Electoral College is our country’s method of choosing the President, which is established in the United States Constitution. (See:

The Electoral College is different from the one-citizen-one-vote process that governs most other elections. Instead of a direct election, in which the person receiving the most votes (known as the popular vote) wins the election, the electoral college votes for the president;  so it is possible for a president to lose the popular vote but win the electoral college vote.    Each state has “Electors”  equal to the number of its Senators (always 2) + the number of its Representatives in Congress. The total for all states is 538 Electoral votes in the electoral college. The Electors vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their particular state or district. To win the presidential election, the candidate must have a majority (270) of Electoral votes.  

Q: Why do people consider the electoral college unfair? Isabella  from California

A: First, some think it is unfair because the winner of the Electoral College vote is not always the  candidate who won the popular vote. (See above) For example, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had more popular votes, but Donald Trump won the Electoral College and became President.

Secondly, the number of a state’s Electoral College votes for a candidate are not necessarily proportional to the number of votes in the popular vote. Almost every  state has a “winner take all” rule: all their Electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state. So no matter how many  popular votes  the losing candidate had in that state,  he or she gets no Electoral College votes.

Third,  states with small populations (have more Electoral votes than their proportional share of the country’s population, because Electoral votes are allocated among the states on the basis of the state’s Representatives and Senators in Congress. Michigan, for example, has a population of roughly 10 million and 16 electoral votes.  Delaware has a population of just under a million and has 3 electoral votes.  If electoral votes were proportional, Michigan would have 10 times the number of electoral votes as Delaware, or 30.  Delaware’s representation in the Electoral College is greatly magnified because of the addition of two (Senators) to its number of Representatives; the disproportion is even worse in Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and the Dakotas.

Q: Why did Donald Trump leave the White House? Devin from California

A: Mr. Trump won a four year term as President of the United States in 2016. He ran for re-election in 2020, and he lost the electoral vote (as well as the popular vote).  Mr. Trump leaving the White House is part of America’s 230 year tradition of “peaceful transfer of power” from one president to another, which is a central feature of our governmental structure.

Learning to Vote

Q: How do I learn how to vote? an elementary student from Oregon

A: The website of your state’s Secretary of State should explain how to register to vote, where to go to vote, and give you a preview of the state’s voting procedures. At the voting site, a friend, family member or voting official can help you with the voting process, although you should decide who to vote for before you get to the voting site; that decision belongs to you, and not any friend, family member or voting official.  Most voting equipment is similar, either a touch screen or a paper ballot. 

Who Can Vote

Q: Who has voting rights? an elementary student from Oregon

A: All United States citizens at least 18 years of age have the right to vote, with a few limitations.  States have residency requirements—for example, that you must have lived in the state for 30 days prior to the election.  In addition, people in prison for felonies and people who are declared mentally incompetent by a court often do not have voting rights. Check your state’s Secretary of State’s website for the rules in your state. Nobody has to pay any tax or pass any test to vote.  Nobody can limit the right to vote based on unlawful discrimination, such as because of, among other things, a voter’s race, ethnicity, old age, religion, gender, place of birth, or gender.

Why November?

Q: How was the month of November chosen to elect a president?  Bella from California

A: Congress passed a federal statute in 1845 to set “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November” as Election Day for the President. Before then, states  held elections whenever they wanted between early November and early December, but that meant that results in some states could influence voting in other states held several weeks later.  So, Congress decided to set a single date for the whole country, one that made it easy for farmers to vote. At that time, much of the population lived in rural areas and didn’t get into town much. Planting and harvesting seasons meant that spring, summer, and early fall were out. November was good because it was after the harvest but before winter snow and severe cold. Most people went to church on Sunday, so weekends were out. . ”Market day” was typically Wednesday, so choosing Tuesday allowed people to travel on Monday, vote on Tuesday, and go to market on Wednesday.

1965 Voting Rights Act

Q: How is it legal for some states and municipalities to circumvent the 1965 voting rights act? -a high school student from Arkansas 

A: It is not legal.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still controlling law, but  the law has been interpreted by the courts, which sometimes had the effect of limiting some of the benefits of the law.  For example, in 2013 the Supreme Court decided that the 1965 law was not based upon current data, so could not be used to support  the current requirement imposed on some states to obtain approval from a court or the federal Department of Justice before they make changes to their voting laws.  This is one of several court cases which have limited protections in the Voting Rights Act.

The Role of Courts

Q: What roles do courts actively play to combat voter repression? Is there more courts can be doing? What are barriers that prevent courts from doing more? a middle school student from Connecticut

A: Under the Constitution, courts can only decide the cases that are brought to them. Courts cannot unilaterally go out to look for voter repression or other injustices or actively reach out and deal with them.

However, courts do a great deal when an issue of voter suppression, or other civil rights violation, is brought before it. If any voting practice conflicts with applicable federal or state law, or the Federal or State Constitution, courts can order that illegal activity to stop (either temporarily or permanently), it can order fines and compensation and provide other relief. Public interest lawyers bring these issues to the courts as a full-time job, and other lawyers also bring them to the courts either as part of their legal practice or on a volunteer “pro bono” basis.