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The United States is a democracy, which means that the citizens run the government. Since we can't all make the rules, we elect representatives -- our president, vice-president, senators, congresspeople, governors, and others -- who make the laws and govern our country based on the beliefs of the people. These elected officials help pass laws that reflect the interests of their constituents -- the people who live within the areas they represent.

Since the right to choose these representatives is in the hands of the people, it is very important that everyone in a community get to the polls to cast their ballots. If only a few people vote, then the elected representatives may not truly represent the interests of the full community.

Someday you may disagree with a decision made by your governor, state and federal representatives, or the president. The best way to make your opinion known is to go to the polls and elect new officials whom you believe will better represent you in the future. By not voting, you are in effect giving up your right to help make changes in our country.

During a presidential election, when millions of people exercise the right to vote, you might think that your single vote won't make a difference. Remember, every vote counts. Even if the candidates you support aren't elected, you've still had a hand in shaping the country's future.

Once you've made the decision to vote, you'll need to register to vote in your state and find out where to go and what to do to cast your ballot. Each state can choose the voting methods that it will offer to its residents.

So what are some of these methods?
Smaller communities use paper ballots. Each voter gets a slip of paper on which all of the candidates' names are written. With pens or pencils, the voters mark the candidates and issues they support and drop the slips in locked ballot boxes.
Larger communities use punchcards, which are similar to paper ballots but have perforated boxes next to each candidate's name. Voters slip the ballots into special clipboards and use sharp pins to punch through the boxes for the candidates and issues they support. When done, the voters drop the ballots in locked ballot boxes. Precinct captains have special machines that read the punched holes on each form and tabulate the results.
Although mechanical lever machines are no longer manufactured, they are still used by some communities. The machine looks like a small booth with a panel of horizontal levers on the back wall. Each lever is marked with the name of a different candidate. Voters step into the booth, which has curtains that the voters can close behind them for privacy. To cast ballots, voters push down the levers that correspond to the candidates and issues they support. When the voters are finished making their selections, they open the curtains and the levers automatically snap back to their horizontal position, ready for the next voter. But inside the machine, each lever that the voter pushes down moves a set of counters -- much like the odometer on a car -- that records each vote. At the end of the day, the precinct captains can look at the counters and calculate how many people pushed each lever.
Have you ever taken a multiple-choice test by marking your choices on a special form with a number 2 pencil? In 1996, almost 25 percent of everyone who voted in the presidential election used the same method. Known as "Marksense," this technology allows voters to darken the spaces on the ballot that correspond to the candidates and issues they support and then drop the ballot into a sealed ballot box. Precinct captains have special machines that read the darkened marks on each form and tabulate the results.
Computers are starting to make their way into elections. Some areas have begun to use direct recording electronic systems, which are simply computers with touch-screens. Voters walk up to a terminal and touch the screen to vote for the candidates and issues they support. Their choices are recorded on disks or other electronic devices, so no paper ballot is necessary.

Some states are starting to explore Internet voting as a possibility. In January 2000, the Republican Party of Alaska allowed certain registered members to log onto a special Web site to vote in the state's Republican primary. Then in March 2000, the Arizona Democratic Party offered Internet voting to all of its primary voters. Yet before Internet voting becomes commonplace, policymakers and technology specialists must figure out ways to make it secure, secret, and available to all voters, even those without Internet access.

If you can't make it to the polls on Election Day, check to see what your state's absentee voter policy is. Many people who are out of town or won't be able to get to the polls submit absentee ballots, which can often be sent in by mail.

Want to know more?

Educators, try these lesson plans and activities in class!

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