Mercifully, Election Day 2020 is only a dozen days away. (Ugh, that’s so long.) But it will be one like no other: Due to a combination of the pandemic and an unusually motivated public, more than 35 million people, a staggering number representing more than 25% of the total number of votes cast in 2016, according to CNN, have voted by mail or at early voting sites around the country. Nevertheless, tens of millions of us will head to our local polling stations on Nov. 3, and while we’re there, we won’t only be voting for who we want to be our president, or senator, or represent us in congress. We’ll also be voting for judging, local government, referendums, and other ballot initiatives, so even if you think you know how you’re voting, it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand—and there are a few tools that can simplify the research process so you don’t need a law degree to make an educated vote.
Get a quick overview of your congressional options
After the presidential election, which you’ve probably already decided on, the next section of your ballot asks for your vote on congressional candidates. This means you’ll be voting members into the House of Representatives and the Senate.
One of the simplest tools to figure out which candidates match your interests is Vote Smart’s Vote Easy quiz. Here, you’ll answer a series of questions about your views on topics ranging from abortion to social security. As you answer each question, Vote Smart gives you a best match for both the House and Senate based on your views. When you click a candidate’s profile, you can get a closer look at how they’ve voted (if they’re already in office) or how they responded to the same questions you answered. While the Vote Smart’s a little basic in its design, this is the simplest starting point for most of us.
While Vote Smart is easy, you might want to do a little more research beyond a quiz.
If you want to know more
- Propublica’s Represent: ProPublica tracks congressional votes, which means you can go through and see how a candidate has voted in everything they’ve ever voted on. It’s a great tool, but it’s only useful for candidates up for reelection.
- Ballotpedia: Ballotpedia is a solid resource for finding out more info about all your candidates (and initiatives, for that matter, but more on that below). Candidates’ pages detail the endorsements they’ve received, provide links to their commercials, outlines their election history, and include a handful of other minor details. Ballotpedia doesn’t dig deep, but it’s a solid rundown.
- Your local paper and news channels: Even if you’ve had no excuse to pick up a local newspaper or watch the local news in years, both are useful resources during election season. Local news channels will often host debates between state or local candidates, and while they’re a far cry from the production levels of the presidential debates, they are arguably more useful. Your best bet is to do a Google search for “[your congressional district] debates.”
Finding the right people is just part of the battle. In several states, you’ll also be voting on tons of different ballot measures, amendments, and questions.
Learn about your state’s ballot measures
Depending on what state you live in, you might have special measures on your ballot in the form of amendments, propositions, or initiatives. While these often seem like simple Yes or No questions, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye, so it’s worth researching before you cast your vote.
The best place for an overview of all your state ballot measures in one place is Ballotpedia. Just type in your address and zip code, and it displays your sample ballot. You can then click on any initiative to learn more about it. Ballot Ready is a similar web app that distills the information a little further, but is worth a look as well.
Your ballot frames an initiative as a Yes or No vote, but it’s important to read between the lines. Ballotpedia will typically give you a breakdown of the entire text of a measure, as well as arguments for and against it. Remember, when you’re reading about these measures, it’s not just about whether you agree with the idea of a measure, it’s also about whether you agree with how the measure will be implemented. For example, marijuana legalization measures, which are on ballots in several states this year, often fail not because people don’t agree with the issue as a whole, but because the initiatives themselves are not terribly well thought-out, leaving loopholes or providing unclear uses of revenue.
It’s also worth pointing out that 11 states and two territories, including Washington, Indiana, and West Virginia, also have gubernatorial elections this year. Many states also have races for Secretary of State, Attorney General, and other local offices. Again, Ballotpedia will give you an overview for many of these, but with smaller elections you have to do your own research because it’s generally light on information, particularly for local candidates and county or regional offices.
If you can’t decide how you feel or you think there’s not enough information about a ballot measure, you do not have to vote on every measure. Feel free to leave any section blank.
If you want to know more
Your local newspaper or TV station has likely hosted debates and gone through the pros and cons of almost every ballot measure and local race in your area. Your mileage will vary here, but it’s worth a look regardless. Ballotpedia has a link under each measure to the full text, though in most cases you’ll need a firm understanding of the law and a couple cups of coffee to get through it.
Learn about your county initiatives and candidates
Ballotpedia is great for statewide ballot measures but it doesn’t do a great job pulling up your city or county initiatives. Typically, these measures deal with local issues like affordable housing, park funding, or transportation infrastructure.
You’ll need to saddle up and dig into local newspapers and community blogs for this one. You can also contact your local election authority for more information. If you’re not sure how to get a hold of them, Vote Smart has a list with web sites and phone numbers. Once you do, they’ll typically have more information about the candidates and initiatives.
Local newspapers will usually run a pro/con article on your local issues before the election (if they haven’t already), so you should be able to find plenty of information with a quick search on your local paper’s web site, or by looking for smaller sites of interest managed by people in your community. If the initiative is controversial, you’ll also find op-eds in newspapers and on local blogs. In bigger cities, larger newspapers will also usually take a side and list their recommendations, which are worth at least considering when you make your decision.
Of course, newspapers are a dying breed, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. Vote411 often has details about local elections and your local country web site should have everything else you need, even if it’s very small.
Aside from the initiatives, you might also see board member elections on your ballot. These are usually for a variety of local positions, ranging from water departments to school school districts. Thankfully, Ballotpedia also tends to pick these up in its sample ballots, so you can at least get an overview of each candidate. If it doesn’t, a quick Google search should bring up all the information you need.
What to do about all those judges
Finally, there’s a good chance your ballot has a bunch of judges listed on it. This is probably the most confusing part.
In many states, you can vote to remove a judge in what’s called Retention elections. These happen in 21 states, including Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. This means that you’re voting to remove a judge from office. That’s it. If you see only one judge listed on your ballot, it’s likely a retention election. Generally speaking, the only reason you’d bother to vote to remove a judge is if their voting record is so unpopular that it actually made the news in some form or another. Several states, including Ohio and Utah, provide breakdowns of each judge’s performance over their career. This is a good place to start your research. The Bar Association is some counties, including King County in Washington, even provide a rating system based on clearly stated qualifications, so that’s worth seeking out as well.
If you’re voting between two people, that means you’re voting for who will become a judge. Your best bet here is to search Google for both candidates’ names. There’s a reasonable chance a local paper, law blog, or legal magazine will have prepared a comparison between them that details their experience, priorities, endorsements, and education. Do your research and read up on their judgement record on cases that may interest or matter to you, and consider how their decisions have influenced your community.
If you want to know more
You’re usually starting out in the weeds for a judicial election, but you can always dig deeper. Ballotpedia has a page that details many of the elections. You can also often find more information from your state’s Bar Association.
With that, you’ll have a brain full of ideas and opinions. It might sound like a lot of work, but it’s worth spending a half-hour or so doing it now, so you won’t end up panicking when your reach the front of the line at the voting booth.
This story was originally published in 2016 and updated on October 22, 2020 to include information, links and screenshots pertinent to the November 2020 election, and to align the content with current Lifehacker style.