Student Voting Guide | District of Columbia

August 15, 2014

This student voting guide explains the laws for the District of Columbia. If you wish to vote from your school address, check the student voter guide for the state where you attend school. If you want to cast an absentee ballot in your home state, check the student voting guide for that state.

The Brennan Center is committed to giving students as much information as possible to help you exercise your constitutional right to vote. More than ever in recent history, changes to voting laws are being implemented in ways that can affect your ability to make your vote count. In addition to the content you will find in this Student Voting Guide, we continue to track passed and pending voting law changes here. While we are working to give you up-to-date information, we urge you to be proactive! In order to ensure you have all the information you need before casting your vote, you should also check with your local election officials for information about additional requirements or regulations.

This voting guide was last updated August 15, 2014.


You must be 18 to vote in Washington, D.C., but you can preregister to vote once you are 16 years old.[1] If you will turn 18 by the next general election, you may vote in a primary election.[2]

You may register to vote prior to Election Day either in person or by mail (you can complete the form online); you may also register at the polls on Election Day.[3] You can register to vote in person at the Board of Elections office at any time, but you will not be able to change your party affiliation less than 30 days before the election.[4] If you mail in your voter registration form, it must be postmarked 30 days before an election.[5]

If you have been convicted of a felony, it may impact your ability to vote.  If you think you might be affected, you should contact your local election officials.

D.C. also offers Election Day registration at the polling place associated with your residence.[6] In order to register on Election Day, you will need to complete a voter registration application, sign an oath, and provide proof of your residency address, using one of the forms of ID listed in the section on Identification, below.[7] However, if you register on the same day as an election you will only be able to cast a ‘special ballot’ which will be counted when your residency is verified by the Board of Elections.[8]


The District of Columbia defines residency as the “principal or primary home” of a person[9] Your residency address is the place to which you intend to return after being away.[10] The following factors may be considered evidence of residency: business pursuits, employment, income sources, residence for tax purposes, residency of family, where you rent, where your personal property is located, and where your car is registered.[11] If you register to vote in D.C., your signed registration form creates a presumption that you are a resident of D.C.[12]

At School. Students can establish residency in the District of Columbia if they have a present intention to remain at their D.C. school address for the time being, and they intend to make it their principal home.[13] Any other interpretation of the residency laws is unconstitutional.[14] The D.C. courts have made clear that students need only meet the same standards as other voters in establishing residency.[15] Your plans after graduation do not necessarily affect your current intention to be a D.C. resident.

At Home. D.C. explicitly allows students who lived in D.C. before moving elsewhere to attend school to keep their voting residency in D.C., so long as you do not register to vote in another state.[16] You do not lose residency in D.C. if you temporarily move to another state or territory.[17] If you register to vote in another state, however, you will not be able to vote in D.C.[18] If you have established residence in another state and are moving back to D.C. with the intent to reside in D.C., you will have to follow the normal registration procedures to re-register in D.C.

Voting in D.C. may be considered a declaration of residency, potentially subjecting you to other laws that govern district residents. 

Challenges to Residency. The chief registration official has the initial discretion to reject your registration on the basis of your ineligibility to vote (including for age, citizenship, or residency reasons).[19] If your registration is initially rejected, you will be given the reasons for that rejection and are entitled to notice informing you of your right to appeal.[20] Additionally, any registered voter may challenge your registration if they believe you are not a bona fide resident, up to 45 days before an election.[21] If your residency is challenged, you will receive notice of the challenge and the evidence given in the challenge; you will have 30 days to respond or your registration will automatically be cancelled.[22] Within ten days of your response, the chief registration officer will make a decision.[23]

You may appeal the decision to reject your voter registration by requesting a hearing within fourteen days of when notice was mailed to you. The Board of Elections will hold a hearing within 30 days of receiving your request; at the hearing, you will be able to give testimony. The Board will issue a decision within two days of the hearing. You can appeal the Board’s decision to the superior court within three days after the decision is handed down. If any part of the process is pending on Election Day, you may vote a “challenged” ballot which will be counted if the Board or the court rules in your favor.[24]

At the polls, any registered voter can challenge your vote on the grounds that you are ineligible.[25] The challenger must set out the challenge in writing, including: your name, the basis of the challenge, and the evidence provided to support their challenge. The challenger must and sign a sworn statement that the challenge is based on “substantial evidence” specific to you.[26] In D.C. it is an offense for you to be challenged on the basis of certain “characteristics or perceived characteristics,” including whether or not you are a student.[27]

If you are challenged in this way, you will be given a chance to respond. The head poll worker will make a decision; if they decide you are eligible, and the challenger does not appeal, you can vote a regular ballot. If the challenger does appeal to the Board of Elections, a hearing with the Board will be held by telephone; if the Board decides you are eligible, you can vote a regular ballot. If the poll worker decides you are ineligible, or the challenger appeals and the Board decides you are ineligible, you will have to vote a ‘challenged’ ballot. The Board of Elections will review your challenged ballot and decide whether to count your vote or not. They will inform you of their decision, and you will have another chance to argue that your vote should be counted, and you have the right to appeal to court.[28]


Most Washington, D.C. voters do not need to show ID when voting. However, if you are a first-time Washington, D.C. voter who registered by mail, and election officials could not verify your identifying numbers (your Washington, D.C. driver’s license or ID number or the last four digits of your Social Security number), you will have to provide proof of identification, either at the polls or any time before Election Day.[29] If you do not provide identification, you will be able to vote a “special ballot.”

You will have to show identification if you register at the polls.[30] If you do not have ID and you are registering for the first time on Election Day itself, you will not be able to vote.[31] If you do have ID, you will be able to vote by “special ballot” (which will be counted once your residency is verified by the Elections Board).[32]

Acceptable ID for both first-time voters who registered by mail and for voters who register at the polls includes either:

  • A copy of a current and valid government-issued photo identification;
  • A copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck (but not a cellphone bill); [33] or
  • A government-issued document that shows the name and address of the voter; or
  • Any other official document that shows the voter's name and District of Columbia residence address, including leases or residential rental agreements, occupancy statements from District homeless shelters, and tuition or housing bills from colleges or universities in the District.[34]

Once you’ve shown ID once (either at the time you registered or when you vote for the first time) you do not need to show it again, although some polling places require ID to enter the facility so you should bring a photo ID, if you have one, just in case.[35]

Absentee Voting

D.C. allows absentee voting for any reason.[36] Your request for an absentee ballot must be received by the seventh day before the election.[37] Blank absentee ballot applications are available on the website of the Board of Elections and may be submitted online, by mail, or in person at the Board of Elections office.[38] Your completed absentee ballot must be submitted in person or by mail, and received or postmarked by Election Day.[39] You can deliver your ballot in person to either the Board of Elections office or to any D.C. polling place.[40] If you mail in your ballot, it must be postmarked by the day of the election and received within 10 days after Election Day.[41]

Early Voting

As a convenience to voters, D.C. has early voting 7 days before Election Day.[42]  You can find the early voting locations and times on the Board of Elections webpage.

Last Updated August 15, 2014

[1] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(a-2); 1-1001.02(2).

[2] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(a-2)

[3] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(5).

[4] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(4).

[5] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(2).

[6] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(5).

[7] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(5).

[8] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(5).

[9] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(16)(A).

[10] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(16)(A).

[11] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(16)(B). 

[12] Scolaro v. Bd. of Elections and Ethics, 691 A.2d 77, 92–93 (D.C. Ct. App. 1997).

[13] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(16)(A) .

[14] See Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 330 (1972); Williams v. Salerno, 792 F.2d 323, 328 (2d Cir. 1986).

[15] Scolaro v. Bd. Of Elections and Ethics, 691 A.2d 77, 86 (D.C. Ct. App. 1997).

[16] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(16)(E).

[17] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(16)(C).

[18] D.C. Code § 1-1001.02(2)(C).

[19] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(e)(3).

[20] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(e)(3), (f).

[21] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(e)(5)(A); D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3 § 521.

[22] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(e)(5)(B).

[23] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(e)(5)(C).

[24] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(f) (covering all of the procedures in this paragraph).

[25] D.C. Code § 1-1001.09(d)(1).

[26] D.C. Code § 1-1001.09(d)(3).

[27] D.C. Code § 1-1001.09(d)(2).

[28] D.C. Code § 1-1001.09(d)(3)-(8) (covering all of the procedures in this paragraph).

[29] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(i)(6).

[30] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(5).

[31] D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3, § 513.3 ("Voters who fail to provide valid proof of residence during the in-person absentee voting period, at an early voting center, or on Election Day must provide such proof in order to complete registration.")

[32] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(g)(5).

[33] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(i)(6).  See also Election Day, D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics, (last visited August 10, 2014).

[34] D.C. Code § 1-1001.07(i)(6); D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3, § 513.2.

[35] Election Day, D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics, (last visited August 10, 2014).

[36] D.C. Code § 1-1001.09(b)(2).

[37] D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3 § 717.4.

[38] See Absentee Ballot Request Form, D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics,  (last visited on August 10, 2014).

[39] D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3 § 717.10.

[40] D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3 § 717.10.

[41] D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3 § 717.11.

[42] D.C. Code § 1-1001.09(b-1); D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 3 § 703.