I usually spend a day or two before the election looking up what I can online about the candidates. By then we have an example ballot so I know who's who.
The problem is, the US is so gerrymandered that it usually doesn't matter who I vote for on the state level. It's starting to become that way with the local elections as well.
I sent a letter/email about the Patriot act and the reauthorization of said act and both times I got a form letter from a representative that couldn't care less about my vote.