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Life Kit: How To Vote


Every election year there are races across the country that are decided by tiny margins, yet every election, there are also tens of millions of people who could vote but don't. NPR's Miles Parks from our Life Kit podcast has this guide to the process and maybe deciding an entire election with your ballot.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, good morning, everybody. I don't think I've ever seen so many people at a board of elections meeting before.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: We're going to go back a few years. The date is January 4, 2018, and there's a packed room in a government building in Richmond, Va. All eyes are on a lady with her hand in a big blue bowl.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Madam Vice Chair, will you give the bowl a stir?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Cook in the kitchen. OK. There you go.

PARKS: That is the sound of democracy. After elections in 2017, control of the Virginia State House of Delegates hinged on a single seat - the 94th District in Newport News, Va. and that race was close - really close. A recount had the two candidates, Shelly Simonds and David Yancey, at 11,607 votes each. Virginia law says that in situations like this, the winner gets chosen at random. They really decided which party would control half the legislature for a state with a population of 8 million people by picking a name out of a bowl.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The winner of House District 94 is David Yancey.

PARKS: One more person voting in this race could have swung it either way. And it's important to mention that voting isn't hard or scary for most people. A recent NPR/Marist Poll found that a majority of people get into and out of their polling places quickly, and they don't run into issues. When issues do come up, though, experts say they usually have to do with your voter registration. So the first tip on making voting easy for yourself is to get registered and do it early.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

JOCELYN BENSON: Deadlines for registration vary from state to state. Nearly all - in every single state - if you register 30 days prior to an election, you're good.

PARKS: Once you're registered, the next step is to get informed. You're going to need to decide who or what you're going to vote for. Nonprofits like the League of Women Voters often put out candidate guides for local races. And Benson says your local newspaper can also be a good place to start. Wherever you get your information, you just need to make sure it's reliable. Benson says that you should be actively seeking it out, not getting it by scrolling through your social media feeds.

BENSON: I think the key is to be proactive, rather than reactive to information we may be getting. It's when we're reacting to links that are sent to us or are posted and simply relying on them to be official and reliable that we set ourselves up to be misinformed or manipulated.

PARKS: Once you're read up and prepared, you actually have to go do the thing. Voting is a little different everywhere, but in most places, there are three ways to vote - early by mail, early in person and on Election Day in person. The key is make a plan and don't wait till the last minute. That's according to Shelly Simonds. She's the candidate who lost by drawing in 2017.

SHELLY SIMONDS: You don't know when the election comes around, when that could be your vote. And I think if people don't at least go out and cast their ballot, they don't get a chance to shape the future.

PARKS: Simonds ran again last year for that seat in Virginia. This time, she won. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

MARTIN: For more tips on how to vote, check out NPR's Life Kit podcast at npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
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