How to Vote in California

This is a detailed explanation of the procedure of how to vote in California. Other States have different election laws and procedures, which are usually found on their Secretary of State’s website.

Voting seems extremely complicated at first because there are so many rules regarding voter eligibility, access, method, and integrity of the election system. Simply put, however, it’s really only a three-step process:


  1. Be Eligible to Vote,

  2. Register to Vote, and

  3. Vote.


First, you must have the right to vote in California. Our State is much more permissive than other States in that we allow pre-registration and we allow certain circumstances of law offenders to vote, whereas other States do not. See “Eligibility to Vote” below. Then you must register to vote- I’ve included ways to register, pre-register, and how to vote if you missed the registration deadline, under “Register to Vote” below. Finally, in section three (Vote!), you may either vote by mail or at your polling location on Election Day.

Remember: like any muscle in your body, you must protect and exercise your rights in order to preserve them. If you register to vote, and then do not actually vote, you may need to register again. Generally, this is because each County and State elections office has different procedures and timelines for purging their voter rolls.


1. Eligibility to Vote

The United States Constitution provides that we have the right to vote. Each State has it’s own additional rules. In California, we have the Voter Bill of Rights. See:

Who Can Register


2. Register to Vote

The voter registration form, whether online or by paper, asks a lot of personal information. Generally, this is to ensure that you vote only on the candidates and measures that are relevant to you, based on exactly where you live and the information you provide. It also tries to ensure that no one votes more than once, while preserving the individual right to vote of persons of the same exact names or addresses. First I’ll explain how to register, and then I address any concerns you may have about the personal information requested on the form.

How to Register

 When to register

  • The deadline to register or re-register to vote for any election is 11:59:59 p.m. Pacific Time on the 15th calendar day before that election.
    • For the June 5th, 2018 Statewide primary election, you must be registered to vote by May 21, 2018
    • CA Secretary of State online registration dates calendar:
  • You Must re-register whenever you:
    • Change addresses (move)
    • Change your party
  • You Should re-register if you haven’t voted in a while, because voter rolls are routinely “purged.” Purging at its best eliminates duplicates and those who may have moved away or died.

If you are concerned about providing your personal information

  • The online registration requires your personal information to submit your registration.
  • If you complete a paper voter registration card and do not include certain unique information, such as the last four digits of your social security number, you may be asked to provide additional identification at your polling location.
  • If you vote by mail, particularly if it is your first time voting, the Secretary of State recommends that you include a copy of your identification with your ballot.
  • Voter identification or qualifications requirements have routinely and historically been used to prevent or deter certain categories of citizens from voting.
  • If sharing your address could put you in life-threatening danger, you may be eligible to register to vote confidentially.


3. Vote!

You may either vote by mail, or vote in person. Even if you choose to vote by mail, if you forget to mail your ballot in time, you may still vote on election day. If there is any problem with your registration, you may also vote provisionally. Here are the details of each method:

Vote by mail

  • You will receive a paper ballot in the mail when you have registered to vote by mail. Complete the ballot by filling in the bubbles of your preferences, and return the ballot by mail. If you forget to mail it in on time, you may also drop it off to any polling location on Election Day.
    • Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by your county elections office no later than 3 days after Election Day.
    • If you are not sure that your vote-by-mail ballot will arrive in time if mailed, you may bring it to any polling place in your county between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Tell the clerks at the polling location that you have a vote by mail ballot, and they will tell you into which box to drop your ballot.
  • To request a vote-by-mail ballot, your application must be received no later than 7 days before Election Day. You can:

Vote in person

Provisional voting

  • If you missed the registration deadline (during the period of 14 days prior to Election Day through and including Election Day), you can go to the office of your County Elections official to conditionally register to vote and then vote a provisional ballot.  This process is called Conditional Voter Registration (CVR).  
  • In order to conditionally register, you must first complete an affidavit of registration (also known as a Voter Registration Card).  After that you will be given a CVR provisional ballot to vote. 
  • Once the county elections official processes the affidavit of registration, determines your eligibility to register, and verifies your information, the registration becomes permanent and the CVR provisional ballot will be counted. 
  • You may also receive a conditional voter registration form and/or a provisional ballot at the polling location, if your name is not found on the voter roll.


More information


Check your voter registration status and polling location here:

  • Your polling location may change. It is best to double-check your location on election day with either your County or the Secretary of State.

If you missed the registration date, or if you show up to the polling location and your name is not on the list:

  • You can “conditionally” register and vote at the polling location (or at your county elections office after the 15-day voter registration deadline), and vote with a “Provisional Ballot.”
  • Your provisional ballot will be counted only after the elections official has confirmed that you are a registered voter and you did not vote anywhere else in that election. The poll worker can give you information about how to check if your provisional ballot was counted and, if it was not counted, the reason why.


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