Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The Vlogbrothers break down the voting systems of all 50 states, highlighting the easiest and hardest states in which to cast a ballot.
Voting in the U.S. can be daunting, especially for first-timers. Each state has its own set of rules, and things can get confusing—especially if you’re a student from out of state or if you lack an official form of photo identification. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock reported earlier this year, voter-ID restrictions enacted across several states unfairly target minority voters, many of whom don’t have or can’t obtain the necessary documents to get a valid ID.
But that’s not all that can make voting a challenge. Just ask Hank Green, half of the popular YouTube duo the Vlogbrothers, whose educational videos on everything from history to science to politics have garnered millions of fans. For their latest project, Hank Green, his brother John Green, and fellow YouTuber Taylor Peters combed through the voting rules of all 50 states (with help from their U.S. viewers) to create a comprehensive YouTube guide on “How to Vote in Every State.” (Peters currently works for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but Hank Green says the project is strictly informational.)
The project breaks things down in 53 easily digestible videos (one for each state, and one each for Washington, D.C., voters in the military or overseas, and voters in the unincorporated U.S. territories). It highlights everything from how to register, how to prove your identity, and how to apply for an absentee ballot—all of which, turns out, are harder in some states than in others.
Indeed, not all voting systems are created equal. “It's definitely weird to see, as you’re going through, how obvious that some places [make it] difficult and some places [make it] easy,” Green tells CityLab.
Some make it incredibly simple, like Oregon. As a giddy Green explains in the video, “Everyone in the entire state votes by mail. It’s the only state that’s like this, and I love it.” As long as you are registered, a ballot gets mailed to your home, and you simply fill it out and send it back. That may help explain why the state ranks fifth in voter turnout and 10th overall in the Election Performance Index (EPI) by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Some states make voters take an extra step, but nothing that would pose a barrier to the voting process. Vermont, for example, is unique for having its first-time voters take an oath, which can be administered by anyone over 18—including yourself. (Though Green suggests it’s probably more entertaining to do it with a friend.)
Meanwhile, other states have introduced various obstacles. Among the hardest states to vote in is Alabama, which requires voters to bring a valid photo ID, a law that was passed in 2011 but went into effect in 2014. It also doesn’t offer early voting, and has a strict list of valid reasons to be eligible for absentee voting—one of them being that you are eligible only if you work at least a 10-hour shift. “If you work full-time, it’s very difficult—especially if you have to go home and take care of your life,” Green says. “And who works longer than 10 hours a day?”
In New Hampshire, you can only register to vote in person. The state doesn’t offer an online alternative, and registering by mail is available only under special circumstances, like if you have a disability or if you are in military service. The challenge here is clear for those who lack transportation or who can’t take time off work.
Then there’s Mississippi, for which Green apologizes to his viewers in advance. “Maybe you can vote to make it easier to vote in Mississippi,” he says in the video. “It is one of the hardest states to vote in. I’m sorry about that.”
So what makes it so hard? Aside from requiring photo ID at the polls, Mississippi is a bit behind the technology curve. While many states offer an online service for voters to check whether they’re registered, Mississippi residents must call their county clerk’s office. Similarly, registering to vote must be done through snail mail. And if you need an absentee ballot, get your pen and paper ready, because unless you are overseas or part of the military, you can only request one by writing your municipal or circuit clerk a letter.
“There are a lot of things that are more automated now,” Green says. “So it's strange to me that there are still circumstances where you have to mail in a letter or a form.”
But all of this isn’t meant to discourage voters from heading to the polls. Green says that a large part of this project’s purpose is to inform his fans—many of whom are young and may be voting for the first time. “We've been making videos for 10 years now, and so we've been through a few elections,” he says. “One of the things we hear is that it's confusing and overwhelming and stressful.”
And that’s true. But it’s nothing that a 53-part series can’t help simplify. You can see the rest of the videos on their YouTube site.