Voter Game Plan FAQ's
It's election year 2020, and we're here to help you navigate more than just the ballot. Figuring out who gets your vote is one thing, but figuring how to actually cast your vote is another thing entirely.
In California, the rules have changed. The primary is earlier. Voting centers are the new polling places. You can vote in person for more than one day. And so much more.
Below, we've answered some frequently asked questions about the process of voting.
WHERE TO START
- Am I eligible to vote?
- Am I registered to vote?
- What's the deadline to register?
- What if I'm homeless?
- How do I get a vote-by-mail ballot?
ABOUT VOTING IN PERSON
- Where do I go to vote in person?
- What do I need to know about the new voting centers?
- What do I need to know about the new voting machines?
- Can I vote in a county other than where I'm registered?
ABOUT VOTING BY MAIL
- When do I need to submit my vote-by-mail ballot?
- Should I worry that my vote-by-mail ballot isn't here yet?
- How do I turn in my vote-by-mail ballot?
- Do I have to use the secrecy sleeve?
- I requested a vote-by-mail ballot, but I want to vote in person. Is that OK?
- I messed up an answer on my vote-by-mail ballot. What do I do?
- I used a pencil on my vote-by-mail ballot. Is that OK?
- Why don't I see Measure FD on my ballot?
ABOUT VOTING FOR PRESIDENT
- I want to vote for president during the primary. Does my party matter?
- My candidate dropped out of the primary. Can I change my vote or recast my ballot?
RACES ON THE BALLOT
HOW VOTES ARE COUNTED
- When does my vote-by-mail ballot get counted?
- Do I have to vote on everything for my votes to be counted?
- How can I make sure my ballot was received and counted?
- How long will it take for results to come in?
I HAVE QUESTIONS
- Who do I contact if I run into problems at the polls?
- How do I get in touch with my local elections office?
AM I ELIGIBLE TO VOTE?
According to the California Secretary of State, you are eligible if you are:
- A U.S. citizen living in California
- At least 18 years old
- Registered where you currently live
- Not currently in state or federal prison or on parole for a felony
- Not currently found mentally incompetent to vote by a court
AM I REGISTERED TO VOTE IN CALIFORNIA?
Check your status or register to vote on the California Secretary of State's website. You can also do this by calling the California Secretary of State Voter Hotline at 1-800-345-VOTE (8683), or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you register or check your status, look for these things:
- what party you're registered under;
- that your mailing address is up to date;
- whether you're a permanent vote-by-mail voter.
If you need to change your party affiliation, mailing address, or vote-by-mail status, you can do that by re-registering to vote.
Note: You may be registered and not even realize it. Since the New Motor Voter Act launched in 2018, eligible adults who go to the DMV for a new license or other services are automatically registered to vote, unless they opt out.
And since 2017, 16- and 17-year olds have been able to pre-register to vote. Eligible teens who choose this option will have their registration activate when they turn 18. That service is also available on the Secretary of State's website.
WHEN'S THE DEADLINE TO REGISTER TO VOTE?
If you miss this deadline, you can still conditionally register at any polling place or vote center statewide all the way up through Election Day. If you register to vote on the day you vote, you will also probably have to cast a provisional ballot, which means your information will need to be verified before your vote is counted.
CAN I REGISTER TO VOTE IF I'M HOMELESS?
Yes. When you go to register to vote you'll see an option to select "I do not have a street address." It will allow you to list your cross streets and county instead of a residential address. Enter the location near where you've been staying. This is needed so that election officials can assign you a precinct.
If you choose this option, you will need to input a mailing address so that you can receive your sample ballot and other voting materials. L.A. County election officials say this can be a P.O. Box, or a mailing address for a family member or friend — anywhere that you'll be able to get mail.
Call your county elections office with any questions. A full list of California elections offices is available here.
HOW DO I GET A VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT?
To request a one-time vote-by-mail ballot, contact your elections office by phone or email. Here's a handy list of contact information for your county offices.
Feb. 25 is the deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot.
Note: All voters in Orange County and any of the other counties implementing the Voter's Choice Act will be automatically mailed a vote-by-mail ballot in 2020. Los Angeles has a one-time exemption from this requirement.
WHERE DO I GO TO VOTE IN PERSON?
Chances are you won't be voting at the same neighborhood polling place you're used to voting in. One of the big changes with the 2020 elections is the use of larger "vote centers" in place of traditional polling places, so you'll vote at one of these designated spots.
WHERE ARE THE VOTE CENTERS?
Here are all the voting centers in Orange County, as a map and a full list.You're no longer assigned a specific place to vote, so you can vote at any voting center in your county. Some will be open for four days and some will be open for 11 days. (And if you want to vote even earlier, you can cast your ballot at your county's registrar office starting Feb. 3.)
At these vote centers you'll be able to get help in multiple languages, replace a lost or damaged ballot, and register to vote or make changes to your voter registration same-day.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT WITH THE NEW VOTING MACHINES?
Another big change with the 2020 elections is that in-person voters will be using new ballot marking machines, involving tablet computers similar to an iPad, instead of the old InkaVote system. It's a major upgrade to L.A. and O.C. where voting technology that hasn't changed in decades. (Here is more info about why these changes are happening.)
This is what the L.A. County version looks like in action:
When you're done making selections, the ballot-marking devices print out your ballot, and you are expected to double-check your choices at the vote center before officially casting your vote.
CAN I VOTE IN A COUNTY OTHER THAN WHERE I'M REGISTERED?
If you're voting in person, you can only vote in the county in which you are registered. Other counties won't have your ballot. In Los Angeles County and Orange County, you can go to any voting center within your county to vote. See voting center addresses here.If you're voting by mail, you can drop off your ballot in any mailbox, or bring it to any post office; it just has to be postmarked by Election Day.
WHEN DO I NEED TO SUBMIT MY VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT FOR THE PRIMARY?
It must be postmarked by March 3, 2020, primary election day, in order to be counted. You can also drop off your vote-by-mail ballot at any voting center in your county. They will be open for a number of days, not just election day.
SHOULD I WORRY IF MY VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT ISN'T HERE YET?
County registrars will begin sending out vote-by-mail ballots Feb. 3. If you are registered as a permanent vote-by-mail voter, but have not received your ballot by mid-February, it's a good idea to call your county's elections office to make sure nothing is amiss.
However, if you've requested a one-time vote-by-mail ballot, those can take a bit longer.
The deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot is Feb. 25.
If all else fails, and you're registered to vote in Los Angeles, Orange, or any other counties that have already rolled out their "vote centers" under the Voter's Choice Act, you can go in-person to any of these centers starting Feb. 22 to get a new ballot. No need to bring your existing vote-by-mail ballot in to the center — the electronic check-in process is designed to ensure you don't vote multiple times.
HOW DO I TURN IN MY VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT?
You have a few options:
- Mail it in — just make sure it's postmarked by March 3.
- Turn it in at your vote center or polling place on election day.
- Leave it at a secure vote-by-mail drop-off location or early voting center.
- Designate another person to drop it off for you — as long as that person doesn't get paid to pick up ballots. There's a space on your ballot envelope to write the name of the person you've tapped to turn in your vote.
And no worries about stamps. Postage is now free for all mail-in ballots in the state of California.
DO I HAVE TO USE THE SECRECY SLEEVE?
No — it's optional for L.A. County voters. And if you live in Orange County, you won't even get one.
I REQUESTED A VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT, BUT I'D RATHER VOTE IN PERSON. IS THAT OK?
Yes! If you live in Los Angeles County, Orange County, or any of the other Voter's Choice Act participating counties, you don't need to bring your existing vote-by-mail ballot — although you still can.
Just head to any vote center in the county where you're registered, check in with an election worker, and get a replacement ballot.
If you live in Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, or any other county that hasn't yet implemented the Voter's Choice Act, try to bring your vote-by-mail ballot with you and turn it in at your polling location to avoid any issues.
Otherwise, you'll have to cast a provisional ballot so the poll workers can verify you didn't also vote by mail.
If you forget to bring along your vote-by-mail ballot, that's okay. Your provisional vote will still be counted after your information is verified for eligibility.
I MESSED UP AN ANSWER ON MY VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT. WHAT DO I DO?
You have some options.
In Los Angeles and Orange counties, or any other Voter's Choice Act county, you can go into any vote center in-person when they begin opening up Feb. 22.
You don't have to bring your old VBM ballot — electronic check-in and online verification with a central voter database lets election workers print you a replacement ballot right there at the vote center.
(If you are in Ventura, San Diego, Riverside, or another non-Voter's Choice Act county, bring your vote-by-mail ballot to a polling location on Election Day, turn it in and vote in person using a new ballot.)
If you mess up before Feb. 25, you can request a new vote-by-mail ballot. Do it ASAP by phone or email your County's election office.
Here's a list of that contact information from the California Voter Foundation.
I USED A PENCIL TO FILL OUT MY VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT. IS THAT OK?
In Orange County and L.A. County, election officials prefer that you use a pen with blue or black ink. However, if you mistakenly use pencil your votes will still be counted.
WHY DON'T I SEE MEASURE FD ON MY BALLOT?
If you're voting in the city of Los Angeles, Measure FD is not supposed to appear on your ballot. The measure is about raising funds for the L.A. County Fire Department, and only applies to areas where the L.A. County Fire Department does its work. That includes unincorporated areas and cities in the county that don't have their own fire departments. The city of L.A. *does* have its own fire department, so that's why voters in the city aren't being asked to vote on this measure.
However! If you're in Hawthorne or Pomona, voters there DID mistakenly receive ballots with Measure FD left off of them, and the L.A. County Registrar sent them supplemental ballots a few weeks ago to make up for it. We wrote a story on this a few weeks ago.
So, if you're in an area where you are supposed to be voting on Measure FD, and it's still not on your ballot, something is definitely amiss, and you should contact the registrar's office. Otherwise, no need to worry!
I WANT TO VOTE FOR PRESIDENT DURING THE PRIMARY. DOES MY PARTY MATTER?
Yes. If you're registered with the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian or any other party, you'll automatically receive a ballot with that party's candidates in the presidential primary.
But if you're a "No Party Preference" voter, you can vote for a presidential candidate in the Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent parties if you have a "crossover ballot."
Just walk into your vote center and request one.
A crossover ballot will not work for voting for a presidential candidate from the Republican, Green or Peace And Freedom parties. To vote for those candidates you have to register as a member of their party.
Need to change your party registration? You can do that at a voting center all the way through Election Day.
If you're a "No Party Preference" voter who would like to vote for a presidential candidate, and you're voting by mail, things get a little trickier.
In that case, you'll have to specifically request a crossover ballot before the Feb. 25 deadline (the same as the vote-by-mail request cutoff). There are a few ways to do that:
- Return one of the special postcards sent by county election offices and have a crossover ballot mailed to your address.Note: Your postcard may include a deadline from your County Registrar-Recorder's office. But, real talk, this is meant to encourage voters to respond early and avoid printing and mailing multiple ballots to each voter. But it is not actually too late until Feb. 25.
- If you didn't get a postcard, or it got lost in a pile somewhere, request the crossover mail-in ballot you want online (go here for L.A. County, here for Orange County), or by phone, fax or an email to your county elections office.Here's a list of contact information for every California county's election office.[The Los Angeles County Registrar's office in Norwalk is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can call them at (800) 815-2666. You'll get a phone menu to navigate, so here's a shortcut: press 2 and then 3 to reach someone who can help you request a crossover ballot. You can also email email@example.com for more help.]
- If you're in L.A. or Orange County and you receive the No Party Preference ballot in the mail in February without presidential candidates — but you want a crossover ballot for one of the eligible parties — you can always go in-person to any vote center to exchange it for a party-specific ballot.
MY CANDIDATE DROPPED OUT OF THE PRIMARY. CAN I CHANGE MY VOTE OR RECAST MY BALLOT?
The short answer is: no. Once your vote is cast, it's cast — even if the candidate you voted for has dropped out. The California Secretary of State confirmed this on Twitter.
So let's say, hypothetically, that you dropped your vote-by-mail ballot in a mailbox yesterday. Then you tried to vote in person today. In all likelihood, your vote-by-mail ballot wouldn't have been received yet. What happens then? Can you "beat" your vote-by-mail ballot to the punch? The first vote received and processed is the one that will count. So if your in-person vote is processed first, that's the vote you'll have.
But whenever your vote-by-mail ballot comes in, it'll flag you as having attempted to double-vote, in violation of the oath you signed on your ballot that you've only cast one vote.
The tangible consequences of this aren't entirely clear, but election officials have said definitively: Don't try to double vote.
I'M SEEING A RACE FOR "COUNTY CENTRAL COMMITTEE" ON MY BALLOT. WHAT IS THAT?
These races are specific to political parties, so you'll see them on your ballot if you're registered with the Democratic, Republican, Peace and Freedom or Green parties for the March 3 primary. (If you're in the Green Party, you'll see races for County Council.) All these parties have county central committees made up of volunteer members who decide which candidates of their party to endorse, communicate policy issues to their local electorate and help fundraise for local candidates and causes. Essentially: they're local party influencers.
Finding information about these candidates is admittedly pretty difficult, but one way to start is by searching for individual candidates' campaign websites or Facebook pages. You can also check out local Democratic or Republican clubs you trust and see if they've endorsed a slate of candidates.
WHEN DOES MY VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOT GET COUNTED?
It depends, but if you submit it as soon as possible, it should be included in the first count after polls close on Election Day. In the past, L.A. and Orange County election officials has said all votes received and processed by the day before the election are included in the first count. This means the sooner you turn it in, the better chance the county will have processed it in time.
If your vote-by-mail ballot is not processed by the Monday before the election, it will be verified and counted in the 30-day period after the election when they go through all votes that were not in the initial count. Make sure your ballot is postmarked by Election Day, or turned in to an approved location by that day, or it will not be counted.
This means that if you want to be included in that first count, your best options are to:
- Mail your ballot in as soon as possible to ensure its processed by the Monday before Election Day
- Drop it off at one of L.A. or Orange County's vote centers or drop-off locations as soon as possible to ensure its processed by the Monday before Election Day
- Vote in-person at a vote center during the voting period starting Feb. 22.
You can also always check online if your vote-by-mail ballot was counted. The California Voter Foundation maintains a handy list of county election office contact information and links to check your ballot status.
DO I HAVE TO VOTE ON EVERYTHING FOR MY VOTE TO BE COUNTED?
Nope! The number of races or ballot measures you weigh in on is entirely up to you. Your ballot will be counted all the same.
HOW CAN I MAKE SURE MY BALLOT WAS RECEIVED AND COUNTED?
You can always check the status of your ballot online, for peace of mind:
- If you live in L.A. County, check here.
- If you live in Orange County check here.
- If you live elsewhere in California, here's a list of ways to check your ballot status online or by phone, depending on your county.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE FOR RESULTS TO COME IN?
Once the polls close, settle in for a wait.
It takes a long time to count ballots in the largest state in the nation, with over 20 million registered voters, where the election system is designed to maximize participation, not speedy tabulation.
Vote-by-mail ballots that are postmarked by March 3 must be counted if they arrive up to three days after the election. County election staff also spend a lot of time verifying signatures, checking conditional registrations and provisional ballots.
WHO DO I CONTACT IF I RUN INTO PROBLEMS AT THE POLLS?
The California Secretary of State has a voting hotline that you can call to report any issues: (800) 345-VOTE. You can also contact your county registrar's office.
HOW DO I GET IN TOUCH WITH MY LOCAL ELECTIONS OFFICE?
Here's a list of contact information maintained by the California Voter Foundation.
This guide was part of our Voter Game Plan for the 2020 Primary Election. You can see more of our stories and guides here.