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California: How to Make Sure Your Vote Counts in the 2020 Election

What you need to know, including key deadlines, how to vote by mail, and more.

Grace Han/Thrillist

What. A. Year. The state is burning, we’re marching in the streets, and right, the COVID-19 pandemic is still holding the world in semi-shutdown. Jobs, homes, and a sense that we know how to do this thing called life have all been lost or rendered increasingly fragile and precious. We don’t hug as much anymore. All of which is to say that this November’s election, already a fraught, highly-pitched battle, is more important than ever. 
 
This burden seems particularly weighty as the sanctity of our voting process feels increasingly threatened. Questions regarding the security of mail-in ballots and the fitness of the USPS have been batted around for months, piling on longstanding, problematically common issues of voter intimidation and suppression. 
 
But -- and this is a very, very important but -- we do still live in a democracy, and the power does still rest in our hands. Why? Because we can vote, and we will, in record numbers. We just need to know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it safely. So please don’t sit this one out. Make your voice heard. And make sure your friends and family make their voices heard, too. Here’s your guide to voting in California.

What’s the deadline to register to vote in California?

The deadline to register to vote online in California is October 19. If you’re submitting your voter registration in the mail, it must also be postmarked by October 19. You can also register to vote in person up until Election Day, November 3. 

How to register to vote in California

You can register to vote online at registertovote.ca.gov. To do so, you’ll need a California driver’s license or ID card, the last four digits of your social security number, and your date of birth. Remember, the deadline to register to vote online is October 19. 
 
You can also register to vote using a paper application -- request one by calling 1-800-345-VOTE (8683) or emailing elections@sos.ca.gov. Or, pick one up at your county elections office, the DMV, and, according to the state’s voter information, at “many post offices, public libraries, and government offices.” Again, that needs to be postmarked by October 19.
 
Missed the October 19 deadline? California has same day voter registration, or conditional voter registration, available to eligible voters who need to register within 14 days of the election. Get more details on that process here

Unsure of your registration status? You can double check here (you’ll need your California driver’s license or ID card, the last four digits of your social security number, and your date of birth). 

Can I vote early? When does early voting start in California?

Yes! In California, any registered voter can request, receive, and vote using a vote-by-mail ballot at your county elections office; you can also hand deliver your vote-by-mail ballot before Election Day. Find information for your county elections office here

Can I vote by mail?

Yes! Any eligible voter can vote by mail in California. In fact, due to COVID-19, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Order directing all counties to issue mail-in ballots to all voters with an active registration status (expect it to arrive October 5). To make sure you get yours, double check your address here

How do I vote by mail?

Again, if you are registered, you should be receiving a mail-in ballot by October 5, with postage included. This means that, unlike in past years, you will not need to apply for and request a mail-in ballot. 
 
If you choose to mail your ballot into your county elections office, use the envelope provided -- the envelope needs to be sealed and signed (with a legible signature) in order for it to be valid. Your ballot must be postmarked before 8pm PST on Election Day, November 3. You can, of course, mail it in anytime before then. No need to use a stamp -- postage is included.
 
You can also return your mail-in ballot in person before Election Day, you can deliver your ballot to your county elections office or, in some counties, drop it in a secure drop box (check with your county for this option and for locations). On Election Day, you can also return it to your polling place. Regardless of location, all ballots must be submitted by 8pm PST on November 3. 
 
Find more details on voting by mail in California here

Is there a way to track my mail-in ballot? How can I make sure it’s counted?

California offers services for all voters to track your mail-in ballot and check on its status. Sign up for ballot tracking services here (you can opt in for email and text updates if you’d like). 

Be sure to carefully read the ballot instructions and meet the aforementioned deadlines. Also, you should avoid tearing or otherwise damaging your voter materials -- you don't want you ballot to be invalidated due to some sort of technicality.

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

California has put together extensive safety measures for poll workers and polling places in light of COVID-19, including providing all voters with the option to vote by mail. If you’re concerned, consider mailing in your ballot, or dropping it off early prior to Election Day. If you choose to go to your polling place to vote, wear a mask and maintain social distance. Be respectful of other voters and poll workers. And, read up and make a plan for how you choose to vote beforehand so you can limit your time at your polling place.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has issued several recommendations for how to keep yourself and others safe while voting in person this November:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times.
  • Wash your hands both before and after leaving your polling location.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol frequently throughout your time inside the polling place, especially after you touch things like door hands, voting machines, and other surfaces that lots of other people touch.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover them with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Dispose of the tissues in a lined garbage can, then use that 60% alcohol hand sanitizer again.
  • Don't try to disinfect the voting machine or equipment yourself because you may end up damaging them. This is where hand sanitizer comes in handy. Use it after you touch the voting equipment or any other equipment at your precinct. If you use it before you touch the equipment, make sure your hands have dried before casting your ballot or touching any of the equipment present.
  • Try to vote when your polling place isn't at its busiest. This might involve driving by and checking to see how long the line is or making a plan to vote early in the day.
  • Verify that you're registered to vote before you leave home and make sure you bring any documents you'll need to avoid complications that could result in spending more time inside the polling place.
  • Bring your own black ink pen for marking your ballot, or your own stylus (just check with a polling place worker before you use it).
  • If possible, fill out a sample ballot at home that you can use to speed up casting your ballot at the polling location. Knowing who you plan on voting for in each race will save you time inside the polling station.

Polls are open from 7am to 8pm.

Additional California voting resources

Find a wealth of information regarding registering, voting, and specific details on this year’s election via the California Secretary of State’s Elections and Voter Information page. If you have questions or concerns, contact your county elections official, or call the Secretary of State’s free voter hotline at (800) 345-VOTE (8683) (find extensions in ten additional languages here). For national resources, visit votesaveamerica.com or iwillvote.com.

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Lauren Sloss is a contributor for Thrillist.