How to Research Your Ballot: An ExplainerExplainers: Democracy Elections Government Local Elections State Elections
Whether voting for mayor or for President, or in the primary election or in the general election, it is important to research your ballot so you can be an informed voter.
Step 1: Find out what will be on your ballot
To begin, try to obtain a sample ballot, which is an unofficial copy of your ballot. Sample ballots are a great way to preview what you will be able to vote on in the upcoming election. They can also be a helpful guide when filling out your official ballot.
Some local election offices mail sample ballots to voters. Alternatively, you may be able to access a sample ballot online at your state’s election office website, or in-person at your local election office. States will make them available as they become finalized.
If you can not find a sample ballot, try to find a document or newspaper article that includes the candidates and measures to be voted on in the upcoming election. You may need to do a little research to find your specific district to know which specific candidates and measures will be on your own ballot.
Step 2: Research to decide who and what earns your vote
There are no perfect candidates. There are only candidates who most align with your values. It can be hard to know where to start, but don’t worry – we’ve got you!
A good place to start is to review endorsements – public announcements of support for a candidate or issue. Endorsements by organizations such as advocacy groups and unions, or individuals, such as elected officials can help you quickly understand what a candidate stands for – or against.
Identify the top issues you care about. Then, search for organizations that advocate on those issues in a way that aligns with your values. You may learn that some candidates earned endorsements from several organizations that align with your values. The opposite can also be true – endorsements of candidates and initiatives by people and organizations that you don’t align with can also inform you on how not to vote.
Be aware that some organizations have misleading names so look at policies the organization supports to gain a clearer understanding of their real position. Some organizations may be multi-issue, meaning they work on several issues from a particular lens like racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ or disability rights, or others.
Voter guides may be strictly informative if published by the state or local government or a 501c3 nonprofit organization. These may include office descriptions, candidate biographical information, ballot measure explanations, and pro and con summaries.
Alternatively, voter guides may be issued by groups, such as advocacy organizations, political parties, unions, or PACs. These voter guides tend to be both informative and persuasive, meaning they seek to inform, but also to persuade the voter to cast their vote a specific way. Similar to the process for endorsements, find organizations that align with your values and use their voters guides as a reference for considering who earns your vote – or find organizations that clash with your viewpoints and use their voter guides to know who to avoid.
Endorsements by reputable newspaper and publication editorial boards can provide helpful information to further your research.
Editorial endorsements are made by an editorial board which is usually composed of multiple journalists and administrators who represent the publication. Their endorsement is the publication’s official opinion. This is different from any letters to the editor from the public or opinion columns written by an opinion writer.
Editorial boards of reputable publications, including major newspapers, often have a thorough vetting process for candidate endorsements that may require candidates to complete questionnaires and participate in an interview with the editorial board to inform the board’s decision. If the candidate has previously served or currently serves in public office, the editorial board will also review their performance and past voting record while in office.
When an editorial board publishes its endorsements, there is generally an explanation about why the candidate was chosen over others, providing you with more insight about what the candidates are really about. Editorial boards are also a great resource for explaining any specific issues on the ballot, otherwise known as ballot measures, propositions, and referendums. More on that below.
Do your homework to see if the publication is accused of bias in their general reporting and consider this as you review their endorsements.
Past Voting Records
If a candidate has previously served or is currently serving in public office, their performance, voting history, and accomplishments are also good areas to research. Their track record may show discrepancies between what they promise and what they do, and that may sway your opinion of the candidate. It is important that your preferred candidate will act upon the causes important to you, so learning more about the candidate’s previous work can help you decide whether they are a good fit for you.
Town Halls and Debates
Town halls and debates are important forums where candidates express their stances on important issues and can provide an opportunity to learn about the candidate’s positions, character, leadership style, thoughtfulness, and substance.
Many town halls and debates provide an opportunity for voters to ask questions. Don’t be shy – ask a question! It could be as open ended as “How are you going to make sure young voters better understand how to engage in democracy or know what your office does if elected?”
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to attend in person, many forums are now streamed or available to view at a later time. These can be a great way to learn more about local candidates since there’s often less information about the candidates available.
Candidate Campaign Materials
Candidates often have social media accounts and campaign websites that include their biography and communicate their values, priorities and/or stances on important issues. Keep in mind, these are the most biased resources as they are created by the campaign to encourage you to vote for that candidate.
Note, campaign materials can be vaguely worded, but this is not always a bad thing. Candidates may realize they can make more feasible and more thoughtful commitments when they have more information once in office and do not want to make empty campaign promises before they are elected.
What are ballot measures, propositions, and referendums?
Besides voting for candidates, you may be able to vote on a state or local ballot measure. Ballot measures, sometimes called referendums, propositions, or constitutional amendments are a form of direct democracy that allows voters the ability to directly vote on a law, issue, budget item, or question, rather than their elected officials.
Caution: Ballot measures can be written using tricky and complicated language. While sometimes this is simply legal jargon, it also can be used to confuse the voter into thinking they are voting in a way that aligns with their values when in reality they are not.
To ensure you are voting your values, it is important to do your research to make sure you understand the measure and the language being used. Local newspapers and organizations are a good starting point to learn more about what a certain measure means for you and your community.
How can I know if the information I’m reading is trustworthy?
Be on the lookout for inaccurate and misleading information. Just because it is on the internet does not always mean it is true. There is misinformation (unintentional spreading of false information), disinformation (intentional spreading of false information) and malinformation (intentional spreading of false information to cause harm) – all forms of misinformation can deceive us and impact our vote. That is why it is important to gather your information from trustworthy sources like candidate websites, trusted organizations, and town halls.
Is there a way to reduce the amount of work to research my ballot?
Researching your ballot can be a lot of work, but you don’t have to do it alone! Team up with friends and family to learn more about who and what you all will be voting on by having a ballot party. Gather together and research the candidates and issues, then share what you have found. Even if your ballots are a little different, you can share helpful resources.
You can even make election-themed snacks, make a voting-themed photo worthy backdrop, and put on old debates (or current ones) in the background to make it more fun. It helps everyone learn – and you can help get your community out to vote at the same time!
I’m not sure I know enough to vote, how can I make sure I’m prepared?
There are a lot of resources and organizations that want to empower you with information to cast an informed ballot. It’s not unusual for someone new to politics to feel overwhelmed and insecure about their understanding. In many cases it’s designed to make you feel that way so you don’t engage or vote. Don’t let insecurity or doubt get in your way. Ask questions, do research and vote in the way that you believe best aligns with your values. Each time you engage, you’ll learn more.
Do I have to complete my entire ballot?
Legally, no, you don’t have to complete the entire ballot. Theoretically, you could vote and turn in an empty ballot, but please don’t! Every vote counts.
Organizations like Rock the Vote create explainers like this one and resources like our Ballot Endorsement Tool to help you better understand what you can vote on in order to shape the future of your community and our country. Read on to get more information and resources to help you vote down the entire ballot.
What is straight ticket voting and should I do it?
Some states have straight ticket voting, which is a quick and easy way for voters to vote for all of a certain party’s candidates at once. Although this may be a convenient way to fill out your ballot, it’s important to know if that option aligns with your beliefs in all of the races. If you conduct research and decide every candidate of a particular party better aligns with your opinions – go for it! Otherwise, you can pick individual candidates that better reflect your values.
Rock the Vote Resources:
- Election Center
- Voting FAQ
- Local Election Official Look Up
- Elected Official and District Look Up
- Ballot Endorsement Tool