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.