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Get Smart, America: 10 Must-Know Facts for Voters in 2016

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Editor's Note:

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist and author, who has written for Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, National Geographic Traveler, Mental Floss, and Chicago Magazine. His new book, Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections, is now available.

The 2008 presidential election was the first in fifty-six years without either the current president or vice president running. That meant both the Democratic and Republican primaries were wide open and competitive in the same election. Just eight years later, it’s happening again, and it’s led to a race that certainly hasn’t fit the blueprint most experts expected. With a few months left before Americans pick a new president, here are ten things any voter should keep in mind.

Some states have been changing voter ID laws.
This is the first presidential election after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Because of that ruling, some states have gotten away with passing laws that make it more difficult for citizens (particularly poor and young citizens) to vote. For example, until this year, voters in Wisconsin didn’t have to bring a photo ID to the polls, as long as they were registered; now they need a photo ID with very specific requirements (so specific that most state college IDs don’t count). Make sure to look up your state voter ID laws ahead of time, so you know what to bring with you when you vote.

Check if you’re registered in advance.
On a similar note, you can make sure your registration is up to date – and find your polling place – well before Election Day. Every state’s board of elections will let you check the status of your registration online or by phone. CanIVote.org, run by the National Association of Secretaries of State, links to every state board and has other resources to get you all the information you need.

Presidential primaries and other primaries can happen on different days.
The presidential primaries started back in January, and by the time you’re reading this, most states have already had theirs. However, while some states (for example, Illinois, Texas, and Arkansas) hold all their primaries on the same day, many others split them up. So even if you missed the presidential primary, you might still have a chance to pick your party’s nominees for other offices. Iowa voted for presidential nominees on February 1, but the other Iowa primaries (including for a potentially competitive Senate race) won’t happen until June 7.

This year’s presidential primary schedule is backloaded.
California has the most delegates at stake of any state, and it won’t hold its presidential primary until June 7, making it one of the last states to choose (New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota also hold both Democratic and Republican presidential primaries that same day). So as long as underdogs can keep things close, there’s no reason to drop out before June 7. By comparison, 2008 wrapped up much earlier because California (and some of those other states) voted as part of Super Tuesday on February 5, and only a handful of states voted after March 11.

You might be able to vote before Election Day.
More than thirty states (and Washington, D.C.) allow early in-person voting, so you don’t need to take off time from work or school on Election Day to cast a ballot. Instead, states will open some polling places a bit before November 8, part of a trend that keeps growing. Speaking of which …

You might be able to vote without even going to a polling place.
Nearly every state allows some form of absentee voting. Twenty-seven states (plus Washington, D.C.) have “no excuse” absentee voting, meaning you just have to request an absentee ballot in advance; the others let you do it only for certain reasons (like being away at school or working out of state). Plus, three states (Oregon, Washington state, and Colorado) give everyone the ability to vote by mail, so you can fill out and return the ballot in advance.

If your polling place claims you’re not registered, request a provisional ballot.
It’s not ideal, but the provisional ballot does at least give you a way to try voting if your polling place can’t find your registration or doesn’t consider your ID valid. Provisional ballots – created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a response to the Florida fiasco of 2000 – only count if the registration is later verified, but they’re a better option than just leaving without a vote.

Much more than the presidency is at stake.
The presidential election gets most of the attention, but every member of the House of Representatives is up for election in November, plus one-third of the Senate, quite a few governors, and heaps of state and local offices. If you live in a heavily Democratic or Republican state, your presidential vote might not matter much – but it could still make a big difference in who serves on your local school board or city council. And honestly, they could have a bigger impact in your day-to-day life than the president does.

Control of the Senate is up in the air.
Thirty-four out of one hundred Senate seats are up for election in the fall, and Republicans currently have a 54-44-2 majority in the Senate (the two independent senators, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, caucus with the Democrats). Because Republicans dominated in the 2010 Senate elections, twenty-four of those thirty-four seats up this year are held by Republicans, meaning they have to win at least twenty seats to keep their majority. (Plus, as is true every two years, it’s possible – but less likely — that the House could also change hands.)

This year’s nominees can make history.
The Democratic primary is going to end with either the first female (Hillary Clinton) or the first Jewish (Bernie Sanders) presidential nominee of a major party in the United States. On the Republican side, Ted Cruz has a chance to be the first Latino nominee of a major party.