Too Late to Register to Vote? And Other Last-Minute Voting Questions, Answered

Ophelia Williams and her brother Leopold Parker do a final check of their mail-in ballots before turning them in at the San Francisco Voting Center near City Hall on Oct. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Yes, Nov. 3 is Election Day, and it's here. But it's more accurate to think of this day as your last chance to vote.

If you haven't yet submitted your ballot, or are hoping to vote in person, here's what to know right now. Is it too late to register to vote? What if you've made a mistake on your ballot? Where can you find your voting location?

And if you've already voted and don't need these tips, why not pass them on to someone you know?

'Is it too late to register to vote?'

If you aren't registered to vote in California, you won't have been sent a ballot — but that doesn't stop you from being able to vote before or on Election Day.

You can register via what's called Same Day Voter Registration (also known as conditional voter registration.) If you're doing this on Election Day itself, you can register and vote at the same time at your polling place — find your voting location here.

'I got a ballot but I want to vote in person'

You have several options. In-person voting became available on Oct. 5 at every county registrar's office in the Bay Area, and way more early voting locations opened across the Bay Area on Oct. 31 (or Oct. 30 in Contra Costa County) until Election Day. Find where to vote early in your countyBring your face covering and be prepared to maintain social distancing.

If you live in Alameda, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara or Sonoma counties, you have the most choice — because you can use any voting location in your county. If you're not in one of those counties, you'll still have to use the polling place you've been assigned (it'll be listed on your ballot.)

Remember: Bring the ballot you were mailed along with you when you go to vote in person. (Why? People who opt to vote by mail always have to bring their ballot with them if they decide to vote in person, as proof they didn't already mail it and aren't therefore voting twice. And this year, because all registered voters in California got a ballot in the mail, they all became mail-in voters by default. Some counties can do a live check to see if your mailed ballot has already been cast, but better to be safe and bring in your blank ballot.)

If you forget your ballot, or didn't receive one, you can still vote in person, but you may be required to vote provisionally (a vote that's subject to extra checks, i.e., that you're actually registered to vote in California, or that you didn't already complete and mail your ballot.) This extra layer of confirmation takes time and therefore means your vote might not be counted on Election Day — although it'll eventually be counted.

'I filled out my ballot but haven't submitted it yet'

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 U.S. Postal Service collection box. You can also return your ballot in person to your county election office, any voting site or a drive-through ballot drop-off location up to Election Day at 8 p.m. Find your nearest drop box.

You could still mail your completed ballot via the USPS at any collection box — the envelope doesn't require a stamp, and it'll be counted as long as it's postmarked by Election Day (i.e., it makes the last postal collection on Election Day.) But because the United States Postal Service is recommending mailing your ballot no less than one week before Election Day, and that date has now passed, using a drop box or another in-person method is now the best way to really ensure your ballot reaches your county elections office in time to be counted.

We've had a lot of people asking us if you can drop off your ballot in a drop box that isn't in your county if that's more convenient to you. Yes, you can! California election officials say they have eight days after receipt to forward the ballot to your actual county to be processed. (This will, of course, give your ballot another journey to make and will mean it doesn’t get to your own county’s election officials as fast as it could — which may affect your decision.)

Election worker John Ferdon transfers a mail-in ballot from a vehicle to a drop-box at a drive-up voting station outside of City Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'I made a mistake on my ballot and don't know what to do now'

Don't panic. We have two explainers on the common errors that initially get ballots rejected in California, so take a look to see if the mistake you believe you’ve made is covered:

Remember: Even if you do submit a ballot and there's an issue with it, there's a whole system in place to then help you correct your mistake. For example, if your county's election office detects a signature mismatch on your ballot envelope, they'll reach back out to you via mail to verify and work with you to correct it, so that your ballot can be counted after all. A mistake on a submitted ballot doesn't mean that ballot is rejected outright: It's the start of a process between you and election officials to resolve that issue and get your vote counted.

And you should know this: If you’re seriously concerned about a mistake on your ballot, you can take your ballot to your county elections office, tell them it’s spoiled, and vote right there at the counter. You can also take it to an early voting site in your county (find locations here) and do the same. Or you could even go to a voting site on Election Day, turn in your spoiled ballot there and get a new ballot then — although that would be your last possible chance to do so. Messing up your unsent ballot does not mean you've messed up your chance to vote.

'I'm registered to vote but never got my ballot'

Ballot were sent out in California by Oct. 5, so if you’re registered to vote, you should have received it a while back. First, check to see if you’re registered at the right address. This is a common reason folks don't receive their ballots.

Your county election office won't mail you a ballot within six days of Election Day because it can't be sure it'll reach you in time. So if you're trying to get a ballot in the immediate run-up to Nov. 3, go to your county elections office in person as soon as possible and request one at the counter. If the issue was an incorrect address, any ballot previously issued for you would be canceled in this case.

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