Californians: We answer your 2020 election questions

The state — as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic — has redesigned the November election into a (mostly) all-mail ballot affair. That means all registered and active California voters should have received a ballot in the mail by Oct. 12. If you're among the nearly three-quarters of the state's voters who are already used to voting by mail, proceed as usual. If you want to submit your ballot in person, no problem — you can still do so at a polling place or at one of the official drop off points your county has designated.

We're fielding your questions below. If you don't see an answer to your question, you can submit it here.

How do I register?

You can register online before Oct. 19. The state will try to find your signature on file with the DMV. If it doesn’t have it, you may have to print out the application and mail it in. And if you missed the October deadline, don’t panic. You can still register at your local county elections office, polling place, or vote center. You can also call your county registrar’s office.

Do I have to vote by mail?

No. You can still vote in person if you like. But depending on where you live, your county may have a reduced number of polling places. Find your closest polling place or drop box.

Does everyone get a ballot in the mail this time?

Not everyone. To keep potential coronavirus-carriers from crowding into polling places this year, the state opted to send every registered and active voter a ballot. If you aren’t registered — or if you’ve moved and haven’t voted in a while — you probably won’t get one. Check your registration status and make sure it’s accurate.

What if I don’t get a ballot in the mail by Oct. 12?

There isn’t a hard deadline for when a ballot must arrive in your mailbox. But state law requires county elections officials to begin mailing them out on October 5 — that’s a Monday — and they have five days to get them all in the mail. If you still haven’t received your ballot by the following Monday — Oct. 12 — and you were expecting one, reach out to your county registrar’s office.

Can I vote if I don’t have a permanent address?

Yes. If you have a temporary location where you can receive mail — say, a shelter or the home of a friend — you can use that address when you register. You can even receive your ballot there. If you don’t have a temporary address, register with an intersection close to where you frequently stay or, if available, just check the box that says “I do not have a street address.” In that case, you will have to vote in person. 

Am I allowed to vote for a candidate if I’m not a member of their political party?

Yes! Vote for anyone on the ballot.

OK, I got my ballot in the mail. I filled it out. Now what?

Stick your ballot into the return envelope and then sign the back of the envelope. This part is really important because it’s the way that county election officials will determine that it’s actually you who did the voting. If the signature is missing or doesn’t match the one on file, county election officials are required to try to get in touch with you, so make sure they have a good email or phone number for you on file too. You can do that here

After signing and sealing the ballot, you can drop it in any mailbox (postage is prepaid) or at a dropbox or polling place.

Should I vote early? Is the U.S. Postal Service really up for this?

California law all but guarantees that your ballot will be counted if it’s postmarked on or before Election Day. So long as the United States Postal Service has it by Nov. 3, California law gives the mail service 17 days to get it to your county registrar’s office. That should be enough to accommodate all but the most extremely unlikely postal meltdowns.

But if you’re certain about how you want to vote beforehand, it’s not a bad idea to drop it in the mail a little early. You’ll be doing the workers at your county registrar’s office a favor by spreading out what’s sure to be a massive workload.

How can I trust my ballot will be delivered and counted?

You're vigilant. We like that. Lucky for you, California’s election administrators have rolled out a statewide ballot tracking service. If you wish, it will notify you by email, text or phone in one of 10 languages when your ballot is sent out, received and counted.

When will the Official Voter Information Guide printed booklet be mailed for the November 3, 2020 election? I really need this printed booklet. I do not have a printer, so I need the booklet.

The state’s Official Voter Information Guide is headed to California households now, so you should see it in your mailbox in the coming days. The state’s information is also available online.  If you still have concerns, you can request a copy of the guide by reaching out to your county elections office or by calling 800-345-VOTE (8683).

What if the signature on my ballot doesn’t match the one on file?

If election administrators come across a mismatch between the signature on a ballot and the one on-file for a voter, they are required to try to reach out to the voter to confirm that individual voted. To make sure the state has your most up-to-date contact information, register with Where’s My Ballot? The new state system will also give you updates when your ballot is put in the mail, delivered and counted. 

If your arm is in a cast, if you have shaky hands or if you’re otherwise convinced that you won’t be able to mimic your old signature, just try your best. If you’re sitting at your kitchen table sealing up your ballot envelope, take out your driver’s license or state ID, if you have one, and use that as a reference. And if that fails, all the more reason to update your email and phone number and track your ballot

I’m leaving the state temporarily. How do I vote?

If you know where you’ll be, have the ballot sent to that out-of-state address. You can do that in two ways:

Fill out a new vote-by-mail application

  • Upside: It’s a one-off change just for this election. After November 2020, your address will revert back to your old one automatically.
  • Downside: You either have to print out a PDF and mail it in or call your county election office.

Update your voter registration

  • Upside: You can do it online
  • Downside: This will be your new address until you change it back, so remember to do that once you return to the state.

What you shouldn’t do: rely on an automatic forwarding address with the U.S. Postal Service. The way that counties send ballots in the mail prohibit the nation’s mail service from simply rerouting voting material. So if you plan to be out of state, make sure your county has your new address on file.

If ballots have already been sent and you suspect they went to your California address, contact your county registrar’s office as soon as possible.

When are California mail-in ballots counted?

That depends. The earlier a mail-in ballot reaches a county registrar’s office, the more likely it will be counted first. But if that mail-in ballot includes a signature that can’t be verified, then it’s more likely to be counted later so officials can confirm the voter’s signature. 

As a general rule, county officials say early votes — whether they arrived by mail, drop boxes or in-person — will be tallied first. Traditional Election Day ballots are part of the next batch, and ballots with special circumstances, such as those by Californians who registered on Election Day or ballots that need signature verification, come last. 

California law allows county election officials to start processing incoming ballots on Oct. 5. This means officials can check for valid signatures, remove envelopes and begin feeding ballots into a counting computer (though they can’t view numbers until polls close). By 8:01 p.m. on Election Day, many California counties can start reporting election numbers.

Here’s more on when your ballot will by counted.

What if you drop off your ballot to a drop box in the wrong county?

If your ballot lands in the wrong county, that county will pass it on to the correct elections office. Santa Cruz’s registrar even tweeted about the ballots her office will be passing along to their rightful spots to be counted. 

I forgot to detach the stub from my ballot. Can I open the sealed envelope and reseal it myself?

Opening it and resealing it yourself should be OK, but the Secretary of State’s office recommends reaching out to your local county elections office. They’ll ultimately be processing your ballot and they can offer the best guidance on whether you should reopen it or just leave the stub attached.

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