This post was updated on Friday, Oct. 30 at 10:50 a.m.
Remember: If you haven't submitted your ballot yet, at this stage it's recommended you submit it by hand at a drop box specifically for vote-by-mail ballots, rather than using a USPS collection box. You can also return your ballot in person to a drop-off location, your county election office or to any voting site up to Election Day at 8 p.m. Find your nearest drop box.
The action starts when your ballot arrives at the county elections office.
"We begin processing thousands of vote by mail ballots as we receive them in the weeks before the election," wrote Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur in a recent memo. "It takes about two days from our receipt of a vote by mail ballot until it is entered into our database."
Election officials are expecting a record number of Californians to vote-by-mail this election. Every registered voter has been sent a ballot, and every ballot envelope contains a unique barcode — to make sure each voter only casts a single ballot.
Most larger counties use machines to capture a photo of the voter signature. Some devices are able to grab an image of 100 ballots every minute.
In counties including Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara, election workers then review the envelope signature and database signature side-by-side to determine a match.
"Human eyes — we’re looking at every single ballot and signature that comes in here," said Santa Clara County Registrar Shannon Bushey.
But in other counties, including Los Angeles, Marin and San Diego, the matching is also left to machines.
"This is typically done using algorithms that look for a certain number of points of similarity between the compared signatures," the Stanford Law report found. "If the signature meets a set confidence threshold — that is, if the algorithm determines it is similar enough to the signature on file — the ballot is marked as verified, eliminating the need for a manual review."
Once your ballot makes it past the verification stage, it’s ready to be prepared for counting, though an actual tally of votes can’t happen until polls are closed on Election Day. It’s like the baked dish you prepare then keep in the refrigerator, waiting until guests are on their way before putting in the oven.
In years past, election officials had to wait until ten days before Election Day to begin processing ballots. This year, registrars can start that process now — a result of new changes to state law aimed at speeding up the vote counting process.
The law allows election workers to open ballot envelopes and feed the ballots into counting machines, but the data captured from each ballot isn't totalled until polls close at 8 p.m. on November 3.
"We can’t tally the votes, but we can cue those up in the system," said Tim Dupuis, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.
Then when polls close, "we can hit the tally button," Dupuis said.
This early processing is not allowed in many states — including jurisdictions viewed as swing-states in the 2020 presidential election. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, vote-by-mail ballot processing cannot begin until Election Day, which could prolong the counting of ballots.
And early processing is not a silver bullet for getting faster election results. In Colorado, an all-mail ballot state that allows immediate processing of ballots, just 60% of results were reported on the night of the state’s primary in June, as mail ballots continued to arrive on Election Day. We should still expect a longer vote count than usual in California, given the increase in vote-by-mail.
4. Your Ballot is Counted
Once polls close, California counties begin releasing initial tallies of votes. These initial counts reflect mail ballots received in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
"If you vote early, you’re very likely going to be part of the initial tally we post after 8 p.m.," Depuis said.
After Election Day, counties will continue to count ballots received by November 20, as long as the envelopes were postmarked by Election Day. (Remember, mailing a ballot too late on Election Day itself — by placing it into a mailbox that's already had its last collection of the day, or taking it to a post office that's already closed — will mean that ballot is postmarked on the day after Election Day, and therefore too late to be counted.)
Even in races with lopsided results, every valid vote will continue to be added to the tally.
"We go until every single envelope is processed," said Santa Clara County Registrar Shannon Bushey.
Election workers will follow up with voters to correct any signature issues until November 25, and county registrars will certify the vote by December 3.