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How Do I Vote in California's Presidential Primary Election as a 'No Party Preference' Voter?

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A bright red ballot box.
File Photo: A ballot box at San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (Beth La Berge/KQED)

The 2024 general election in November will decide who will be the President of the United States for the next four years. But way before that, California voters have another big election around the corner on March 5: Our state’s presidential primary.

Among other things, the March primary election allows voters to choose the candidate from their preferred political party that they ultimately want to run for president in November. But if you’re registered as a “no party preference” voter (sometimes referred to as an “independent”), you’ll need to take action to be able to vote in these races — because the ballot you received in the mail won’t have any presidential candidates on it.

Another twist: The type of action you have to take depends on what party’s candidate you want to vote for in March. But luckily, it’s not too late. Keep reading for everything you need to know about voting in California’s presidential primaries as a no party preference (NPP) voter.

(And if you’re looking for information about what’s on your ballot, take a look at KQED’s Voter Guide, which unpacks ballot measures and compares candidates in the most important races in the Bay Area.)

Jump straight to: How to vote for a presidential candidate in

I can’t remember whether I’m registered as no party preference (NPP). How do I check?

You can visit the state’s website, registertovote.ca.gov, and hit “Check your registration status.” You can also call the Voter Hotline at 800-345-VOTE (8683) for your voter status.

You certainly won’t be the only California voter figuring this out, said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “It’s going to be challenging for voters and election officials alike because it’s been a while since people voted,” she noted.

“They may have forgotten how they registered to vote, what party they registered to vote with,” Alexander said. “And that will determine their voting choices for president.”

21.95% of voters are registered as NPP in California — a drop from 25.90% in 2020. At 27.11%, Santa Clara County actually holds the greatest percentage of NPP voters in the entire state.

(One small thing to note: Even though being a no party preference Voter is sometimes known as being an independent voter, that’s not the same thing as being a member of the American Independent Party.)

When I receive my NPP ballot in the mail without any presidential candidates on it, what should I do with it?

“The good news is that nobody has to vote with the ballot that they get in the mail if they don’t want to,” Alexander said.

So, if you, in fact, want to cast a vote for a presidential candidate in the primary, do not fill out and submit that first ballot you were sent.

Not only will that first ballot not give you any presidential nominees to vote on (because you’re an NPP voter), but if you do submit it, you will not be able to fill out any new ballot with presidential candidates on it because you will have already voted by submitting that first ballot.

Instead, you can follow the steps below, depending on which party you want to vote for, and that first ballot will be canceled. Your NPP status will also prevent you from voting for candidates for party central committees, the governing body of the local political parties. Those elections are only open to party members. But NPP voters won’t have to take any action to vote in the primary for U.S. Senate or state legislature.

I’m NPP, and I want to vote for a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party, the American Independent Party or the Libertarian Party.

These three political parties hold what’s called “modified-closed presidential primaries,” — which means that as well as accepting votes from their registered party members, they also allow NPP voters to vote for their presidential nominees without having to register with that party.

To vote in the March primary for a presidential candidate from the Democratic Party, the American Independent Party or the Libertarian Party, you can:

1. Request a cross-over ballot from your county elections office

You can print a cross-over ballot request form (PDF), fill it out, and return it to your county elections office by:

Additionally, the state also said that you can submit your request for a cross-over ballot by phone.

You can also find the PDF request form for a cross-over ballot in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese online.

You can request a cross-over ballot in person from your county elections office up until Election Day. If you do this, it’s a good idea to bring along the original ballot you were sent so it can be canceled on the spot. Find your local county elections office’s contact details.

Feb. 27 — one week before Election Day, March 5 — is your last day to request a cross-over ballot by mail, fax or email. Between Feb. 28 and March 5, you’ll need to request one in person (see below).

As long as you requested it in time, your new cross-over ballot will arrive in the mail, and the original ballot you were sent in early February — the one that didn’t have any presidential candidates on it — will be canceled, as long as you haven’t already submitted it.

2. Request a cross-over ballot when you vote in person

If you want to vote for a presidential candidate from the American Independent, Democratic, or Libertarian party in person, ask a poll worker for a new ballot with those candidates when checking in at an in-person voting location after voting opens in your county. And as mentioned above, you can do this at your county elections office, too.

You’ll be handed a new ballot that includes that party’s presidential nominees, which you can fill out and submit there and then. If you do this, it’s a good idea to bring along the original ballot you were sent so it can be canceled on the spot.

But again, remember: If you’ve already filled out and submitted that first ballot that arrived in the mail, you cannot request and submit any new cross-over ballot either by mail or in person.

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I’m NPP, and I want to vote for a presidential candidate in the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party or the Republican Party

These three political parties hold what’s called “closed presidential primaries,” — which means that only voters who’ve registered as a member of that party (also known as “indicating a preference for that party”) can vote for one of their presidential nominees. Unlike the Democratic Party, the American Independent Party or the Libertarian Party, these parties will not let you request a cross-over ballot.

Instead, if you want to vote for a candidate from the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party or the Republican Party in the primary, you’ll have to officially re-register as a member of that party. Remember: Re-registering as a member of a political party, even if you’re only doing it to be able to vote in the presidential primary, will mean you’ll remain a registered member of that party indefinitely unless you make further changes to your registration later. That is, there’s no such thing as a “temporary” re-registration for the primary.

Here’s how to re-register with a political party, depending on when you’re reading this:

Re-register online (before Feb. 20)

Go to registertovote.ca.gov to input your details and select the party you now wish to register as a member of to be able to vote for one of their presidential candidates in the March primary.

Be sure to check the “I was previously registered or pre-registered to vote” box on the form to indicate you were previously registered as no party preference, and then select your desired new party under “Political Party Preference.”

You will then receive a new ballot in the mail that contains presidential nominees for that party.

Re-register in person at your county elections office (after Feb. 20)

The Same Day Registration system allows voters to register for their preferred party in person and vote using what’s called a provisional ballot. Once your county elections office has verified you are indeed eligible to register or re-register to vote, this ballot will be processed and counted.

Go to your county elections office and tell them you want to re-register as a member of the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party or the Republican Party to be able to vote in their presidential primary.

You’ll be handed a new provisional ballot that includes that party’s presidential nominees, which you can fill out and submit there and then or take home and submit by mail or drop off later. If you do this, it’s a good idea to bring along the original ballot you were sent so it can be canceled on the spot. Find your local county elections office’s contact details.

Re-register in person at your voting location when you vote (from as early as Feb. 24 in some counties)

If you live in Alameda, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara or Sonoma, Vote Centers in your county are now open as of Feb. 24, where you can go in person. Assigned voting locations will open a little later in San Francisco, Contra Costa or Solano for those counties’ voters. See where early voting is available in your county.

As with your county elections office, go to your voting location and tell them you want to re-register as a member of the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party or the Republican Party to be able to vote in their presidential primary.

You’ll be handed a new provisional ballot that includes that party’s presidential nominees, which you can fill out and submit there and then, or take home and submit by mail or drop off later. If you do this, it’s a good idea to bring along the original ballot you were sent so it can be canceled on the spot.

Remember, if you’ve already filled out the ballot that arrived in the mail that didn’t have any presidential candidates on it, you will not be able to re-register with a political party and request or submit any new ballot with those candidates — because you’ve already voted with that first ballot.

I got a flyer in the mail in December about voting as a no party preference voter. Is that related to this?

Yes. Your county’s election office sent out that mailer and will have included a postcard that an NPP voter could complete and send back to request a cross-over ballot.

But the deadline to send back these mailers passed long ago — so if you don’t remember filling out and sending back that postcard, you’ll still need to follow the steps below depending on what party presidential primary you want to vote in. (And if you don’t even remember seeing that mailer, that means there’s no point in stressing about it now anyway.)

Voting in the presidential primary as an NPP voter seems … involved. Am I missing something?

No, Alexander said — the system means that the roughly 22% of California voters registered as NPP “need to be proactive,” she said. “Some people are going to feel frustrated about that.”

And when it comes to why the presidential primaries can get complex for NPP voters, Alexander noted that it’s the political parties themselves who decide to hold closed or modified-open primaries this way. The state does not decide it, and “it’s not [your] registrar’s fault or responsibility” either, she said.

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This is, Alexander said, “just one of those things that makes California elections feel like you’re doing algebra sometimes, trying to figure out what’s what.”

I’m not actually registered to vote at all, but I want to vote in March. What now?

After the Feb. 20 deadline to register to vote online at registertovote.ca.gov, you can still register in person at your county elections office or an open voting location via Same Day Registration up until when polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, March 5.

If you want to vote in the March presidential primary for a candidate from the Democratic Party, the American Independent Party or the Libertarian Party, you’ll either need to register as a member of one of those parties or go through the processes above to request a cross-over ballot if you want to be a no party preference voter.

If you want to vote in either the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party or the Republican Party’s presidential primaries, you should register as a member of the party you want to vote for.

Will my choice to vote in California’s presidential primary affect my choice in the November general election?

No. In November, you can vote for any candidate from any party, regardless of how you are registered or if you previously voted.

I’m actually registered with a political party, but I don’t want to vote for that party’s presidential candidate in the March primary

You can still vote for another party’s presidential nominee, but your options depend on which party you’re currently registered with and the party you want to vote for in the primary. Read more on how to vote for a different party’s presidential nominee than the party you’re registered with.

How to contact your county elections office

Across the Bay Area, elections officials are encouraging voters to reach out — early — with any questions or concerns. You can also use the links below to find the mailing address of your county elections office to send back a printed request for a cross-over ballot:

The state also has a full list of every county elections office in California.

Bookmark the state’s full list of deadlines for the California Presidential Primary Election.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2024. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID-19, how to cope with intense winter weather, and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger and help us decide what to cover here on our site and on KQED Public Radio, too.

This story was originally published on January 30.

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