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Decide Who to Vote For

Learn how to make informed choices by using voter guides and sample ballots to research candidates.

Do I Have to Vote for the Party I’m Registered With?

Your state may give you the opportunity to declare your political party affiliation on your voter registration card.

  • You do not have to vote for the party you’re registered with, in a federal, state, or local general election.

  • But in a presidential primary or caucus, depending on your state’s rules, you may have to vote for the political party you’ve registered with.

Voting in Primary and Caucus Elections

States choose a candidate to run for president through primary elections, caucuses, or both. Depending on your state’s voting rules, your state’s primary or caucus elections can be open, closed, or some combination, which can affect your voting eligibility:

  • During an open primary or caucus, people can vote for a candidate of any political party.

  • During a closed primary or caucus, only voters registered with that party can take part and vote.

  • “Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.

Check which kind of primary elections your state has so you’ll know how you’re able to vote in them. 

Voting in the General Election

In the general election, you are eligible to vote for any candidate from any party. It doesn’t matter if you’re registered for a political party or whom you may have voted for in the past. You can vote in the general election even if you didn’t vote in your state’s primary or caucus. 

Who You Can Vote for on Election Day

Voter guides and sample ballots will show who the candidates are and any state or local measures up for a vote. Reviewing them before Election Day can help you decide who to vote for.  

Voter Guides

Voter guides provide background information on the candidates and ballot measures. They’ll list the candidates by race and offer details on each one’s experience and goals. They’ll explain any ballot measures, which are specific questions or issues that you can approve or reject. 

Regional newspapers often produce voter guides, as do issue-specific organizations.

Sample Ballots 

Sample ballots simply show you the races and candidates and any ballot measures that will be on your real ballot. They won’t provide information about the candidates like voter guides do. Your state may mail you a sample ballot or let you download one from its election site. The sample ballot may look exactly like the real one will. 

Some non-profit organizations produce unofficial sample ballots. These ballots may not look the same as what you’ll see when you vote but will provide the same information.

Write-In Candidates for Federal and State Elections

Besides the names on your ballot, you may be able to write in names of other candidates. Most states let you write in votes for president, U.S. senator, and U.S. representative. They also allow write-in votes for governor and other state offices.  

But writing in a name doesn't mean that vote will count. Many states demand that write-in candidates file paperwork before the election. Otherwise, the state won't count the person's votes.

Forty-one states allow write-in candidates for president. Most demand the candidates file paperwork in advance. Nine states don’t allow write-in candidates for president but may for other offices. 

Check with your state election office to find out the rules for your state. If you check using your state’s election website, enter “write-in candidates” in the search bar.

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Last Updated: November 5, 2019

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