5 things first time voters need to know

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Whether you've recently come of age and registered to vote or were motivated by this year's elections and issues to take action, you and millions of others in the United States are voting for the first time in this 2016 election cycle.

But before you hit the polls, city and town officials say its important to do your homework on the issues and candidates, know your state's voting laws, and know where you're going to cast your ballot.

Marie Y. Ryan, town clerk for Great Barrington, Mass., said one of the most helpful things any voter can do for both themselves and for poll staff is to know your voting decisions prior to stepping into the booth.

"Definitely read that little red book," she said, referring to the 32-page Massachusetts voter information guide published by Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin's Office. The booklet was sent to Massachusetts residents and is also available online, along with numerous other resources and detailed information at sec.state.ma.us/ele/eleidx.htm

The guide is particularly useful this year in detailing the four statewide ballot questions Massachusetts voters will decide on.

"It's really important to read ahead and know what you're voting for than to come and spend time reading here and holding up the lines," said Ryan.

There are no statewide ballot measures in Vermont this year, but voters will be casting their choices for local, state and national officials. Vermont voting information can be found online at sec.state.vt.us/elections.aspx. The website also includes details on candidates and parties.

If you're still unsure and need more information about your voting registration status and what's on the ballot for you municipality, check in with election officials at your local town or city hall. Most local websites include posts of a sample ballot to familiarize voters with what the ballot looks like, and the decisions they'll be asked to make.

Once you've made up your mind on who and what you're voting for, the next thing you must do is decide when you're going to vote, because you have options.

In our region, registered voters of Massachusetts and Vermont have the option to vote now, during the early voting period, or on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Early voting is orchestrated through town and city halls during regular business hours as well as special early voting hours as posted by the municipality.
If you're planning to join the live action on Election Day, here is what you'll need to do:

1. Show up at the right place at the right time

Make sure you're headed to the right place and are aware of the polling hours. How do you do this? Visit your state election websites, or the website or physical municipal offices for your town, where voting precincts are posting. Polling stations may be held in various other municipal buildings and community centers, not just a town or city hall.

2. When you get there, check in

Inside the polling center, there may be multiple voting lines, often organized by street address. Once you're there, most voting stations have official and volunteer staff who can also help show you where to go.

3. Bring your ID, just in case

If you're voting for the first time, it's also helpful - though not necessarily required - to bring at least two forms of identification to verify your registration. In Vermont, if you're a first-time voter who didn't provide ID when you registered, you should definitely bring a valid photo ID or a copy of a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck that verifies your name and street address.

In Massachusetts, if you're a first time voter, or haven't voted in awhile, you should also bring a photo ID or a document verifying your name and street address. Carrying two forms of identification is a helpful backup, in case there are any issues.

4. You're ready to vote, now what?

Once inside the polling booth or at the early voting counter, it's important to follow the ballot instructions by using only the provided writing implement to mark your ballot.

If, even after you're research, you're not happy with or are undecided with the candidates provided, or if you want to abstain from weighing in on a particular issue, you have the right to write in a candidate in the write-in sections of a ballot, or you can leave it blank.

"Another thing a lot of first-time voters don't realize is if there's only one person running for a particular position or if they're unsure or don't like something, they can skip it. If someone really wants to, they could leave the whole ballot blank," Ryan said.

5. Now, make it official - but skip the selfie

After you've made your decisions, you can share your ballot with the tallying machine, but be sure to mind your state law when it comes to taking a photograph of or "selfie" with your ballot.

Since it's your first time, it's pretty exciting and seemingly innocent to want to capture the moment with your camera phone, but it could also get you in trouble.

In Vermont, there is no law against taking a ballot selfie. In Massachusetts, however, it's technically illegal to make and share copies or "representations" of a completed ballot. So, if taking a photo in the moment is a must, you might want to either pose with your blank ballot, with the booth alone as a backdrop, or maybe just with one of those nifty "I Voted" stickers and a victory pose.


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