Back to School: Student Voting 101

Various voting-themed school supplies including a backpack with a ballot coming out of it, a notebook scribbled with questions about registering to vote, and a cell phone with a sticker that says "VOTE"

The beginning of fall means that millions of students are heading back to school. For many college students, going to school usually means a new address — and a new opportunity for voter registration. To be clear: Students who move for school can vote at their school address or permanent home address. The choice is up to the student. Students who register to vote using their home address may do so because they feel more connected to the community they grew up in or because they plan to move back after graduation. Some students choose to register at their new school address because they want to be involved in local politics. Either option is fine, as long as a student is only registered at one address. 

Voting as a student often comes with it’s own challenges and barriers. Today, we’ll go over key information for student voters. 

Here’s what you need to know:

If you want to vote at your home address

If you plan to stay registered at home while you’re away attending school, make a plan for how you will vote. Can you return home during the early voting period or on Election Day? If you can go home, register there and simply show up at your polling place (with voter ID if your state requires it) and cast your ballot. If you can’t go home, you’ll need to request an absentee ballot to be mailed to your school address.

Students away from their home county or state during elections are eligible to vote by mail. You can request a mail-in or absentee ballot application directly from your state or local election office. Many states allow you to print out the forms from the secretary of state’s website or have an online absentee ballot portal that you can access with your state driver’s license.

If you’re mailing your absentee ballot application, remember to send it in early! We recommend sending your application no later than 20 days before the deadline, but the earlier the better. Almost every state has a deadline by which absentee ballot requests must be made. States like Texas require absentee ballot applications to be received by their deadline. Others, like New York, require the application to be postmarked by a certain date. Be sure to double check with your local election office about what their deadlines are.

Depending on your home state, you may have the option to become a permanent mail voter. For every election, a ballot will be mailed to whatever address you designate for a certain period of time or until you cancel the permanent mail voter registration. For students that will have the same mailing address throughout their entire time at school, this could be a good option to consider.

With mail or absentee voting, there are a few obstacles students may face, especially if it’s their first time voting. In Tennessee, for example, first-time voters must vote in person at least once or present their voter ID at the election office before they can vote by mail. If you’re a Tennessean planning to use mail-in voting while at school, or are unsure about ID requirements for mail-in voting in your home state, contact your elections office about what voter ID you may need to provide.

A handful of states such as Alabama, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and more require vote-by-mail applications and/or ballots to be signed by witnesses (often registered voters from your home state) or be notarized. Without these signatures, the ballot will not be accepted. Almost every college and university has at least one person on staff who is a notary. Ask your administrative or student life office if they could help with this service. If your school cannot provide a notary, banks, public libraries and print and package shipping shops often have notary services available. Depending on what state you’re in, getting an absentee ballot notarized may be free.

If you want to vote at your school address

If you choose to register to vote at your school, there are just a few things to consider. First, many states have residency requirements, meaning that a person must live in the state or county for a certain number of days before an election in order to vote. For example, Washington requires individuals to live in the state for at least 30 days before Election Day in order to establish residency. New Hampshire has no residency requirement and you can register as soon as you move. 

Residency requirement dates often match up with how far in advance voter registration deadlines are. While most students move to their school in August or September and elections are held in November, check with your local voter registrar about any residency requirements or registration deadlines to be aware of.

Voting at school will also require you to verify what address you need to use for registration. Some school dorms may not have a proper street address and give students a P.O. box to receive mail. However, a few states don’t allow P.O. boxes for voter registration. So if you don’t have a typical street address for your dorm at school, contact your local election official to ask what address is best to use. Officials working in districts with colleges or universities are often informed about the dorm and mail address situation and can provide further guidance about how to register. 

If you’re voting outside the country

Whether you’re studying abroad for a semester or completing a full degree internationally, Americans voting outside the United States is a common occurrence. The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) provides support to American citizens voting abroad in a process similar to absentee voting. Students abroad can use the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to register and/or request a mail-in ballot using their last permanent address in the United States. Unlike traditional mail-in ballot applications, the FPCA ensures that your ballot is mailed to you while abroad at least 45 days before an election, giving you extra time to complete and send back your ballot and avoid potential mail delays. FVAP also allows for citizens abroad to vote via a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot if their official ballot does not arrive in time. If you will not be in the United States for an election, FVAP is one of the easiest ways to vote.

Voting as a student can be challenging and may take extra planning to ensure your ballot is cast. Whether you’re voting at home, from school or while abroad, support is available from your local election officials to ensure that your voice is heard.