Voting in the California primary: What you need to know

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An “I voted” sticker. Photo credit: League of Women Voters of California (CC BY 2.0).

The California primary is Tuesday, March 3, 2020. But voting by mail starts much sooner. More than 15 million voters in California will receive ballots in the mail, beginning Feb. 3. How can you make sure your vote is counted? We get some guidance from Paul Mitchell of Political Data, Inc.

Mitchell estimates that as many as 600,000 voters won’t be able to vote for a presidential candidate -- enough to sway the Democratic nominee. Why? Because of how political parties in the Golden State operate.  

Crossover voting

If you’re nonpartisan (“no party preference”) but you want to vote for a presidential candidate in the primary, you need to request that party-affiliated ballot. You can request a ballot from the Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent parties – not from the Republican party. That’s easy to do when you’re voting in person at a polling place, and a poll worker can hand you the ballot. 

If you’re voting by mail, then you must request that the ballot gets sent to you. 

February 25, 2020 is the deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot of any kind. You have up until Election Day to re-register to vote. The request can even be made online.

If the February 25 deadline has passed, and you still want a crossover ballot, you can request  that at your county elections office, voting center, or polling place through Election Day.

“The county has been very aggressive in trying to reach out to voters. They mailed a postcard to every voter. They did a second mailing to every voter. They have been putting things online and trying to communicate with voters. The campaigns have also been trying to communicate with voters,” says Mitchell.   

If you lost that postcard or if the date on the postcard has passed, then e-mail the county registrar or call the registrar's office. “All of your ballot materials will have information about how to contact your registrar and request that card and then just wait for that new ballot,” says Mitchell. 

If you decide to go to a voting center, do you need to bring your mail-in ballot and exchange it, so you prove you’re not voting twice?

Yes. Bring your mail-in ballot so you can relinquish it, and then get a replacement ballot to vote.

Mitchell notes: “Even if you don't have your ballot, you can still go in. They'll allow you to vote, and then they'll just hold that ballot and not count it until they can confirm that your ballot didn't come in the mail earlier, or it wasn't processed some other way. And once they can confirm that you didn't vote somewhere else, then they open that up and counted.” 

He emphasizes that the number one rule is to make sure you get a chance to vote -- and vote with the ballot you want. “If it’s not exactly the ballot you want, make sure you go and get a remedy and get it fixed, because the counties have created a process that allows a lot of ways for voters to make sure that they're voting with the ballot that they want to.”

The registrar of voters isn’t trying to make your life tough

The national political parties, not election officials, set these rules. 

“There is basically an intersection of the what the national parties want and how the state administers the elections,” explains Mitchell. “And so the state has chosen to kind of concede to this federal national party rule that voters overtly request the ballot, basically because of a fear that if we did it some other way that wasn't authorized by the national parties, they could potentially not count our votes at all.”

If thousands of people say they haven’t been able to cast their ballots for the person they wanted, do county registrars have fallback to reassure that everything will be okay? 

The fallback: California mandates that all counties do same-day voter registration. You can do this in-person at the polling place. 

“But … there are huge numbers of voters who are probably going to feel a little bit disenfranchised when they see that their ballot doesn't have presidential candidates on it. ... There were 4.2 million independents who are vote-by-mail this election cycle in California. We're projecting that 85% of those ballots are going to be received and have no presidential candidates on them at all,” he says.

In some cases, Californians who vote by mail this spring are going to do so before the New Hampshire primary, and maybe before the Iowa caucuses. So they're not going to have a national trend to follow when it comes to the presidential race. How significant is that?

Mitchell says it’s a big deal for the campaigns, and it's something they have to navigate. 

“The mail-in ballots are being sent to voters largely on February 3. There's some people -- military ballots, overseas ballots -- that get mailed earlier. But for the most part, starting February 3 is when voters are going to start seeing these ballots show up,” he says. 

The Iowa caucuses are also on February 3. Mitchell says 99.9% of voters are going to be able to see who won the Iowa caucuses before they vote.

“For the campaigns, winning in Iowa does have a big kind of momentum effect. New Hampshire's right on the heels of Iowa. So our projection is that about 5% of voters will have voted between Iowa and New Hampshire,” Mitchell says. 

“But then you start to get a bigger chunk between New Hampshire going into Nevada and South Carolina. You're going to start to see huge numbers of voters casting their ballots during that period of time. So in a way, doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire is much more important, say, than South Carolina, which is the Saturday before our Tuesday election. So if you're a campaign, you're having to think about that in terms of how you move the California electorate,” he adds.

Will candidates put more emphasis on California in the next few weeks?

Mitchell says candidates have tended to make big advertising push in the last few weeks up to Election Day. “But maybe they're going to want to start that final push a little earlier.”

“I think there's going to be a real barnstorming of California, particularly after Iowa. … Now, Iowa's kind of interfering with the California primary as being the biggest kind of part of Super Tuesday. So as soon as Iowa is done, I think you're gonna start to see a lot of campaigns shifting resources to California,” he says.

He points out that in many candidates are spending just as much money in California as they are in Iowa right now -- on Facebook ads. 

Since California moved up its primary, will it be tougher for pollsters to predict the outcome of the presidential primary in this state?

Mitchell says one challenge in predicting California primary outcomes is: Where do you put independents in this? 

“Maybe at the first mailing of ballots to independents, only 15% of them even have the presidential race on their ballot. So if you're polling, you want to say to yourself, ‘OK, we know independents are supporting these candidates, but are they really going to turn out?’ ” he says. 

He adds that in a primary like this, a lot of nontraditional voters might turn up too: younger people, college students, minorities, people who didn’t vote in the last three primaries.



Chery Glaser


Amy Ta