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A San Francisco resident fills out their mail-in ballot on Oct. 6, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

How to Correct a Mistake on Your Ballot for the 2024 California Primary Election

How to Correct a Mistake on Your Ballot for the 2024 California Primary Election

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2024 is another big election year — and before the general election in November that’ll decide the next president of the United States, California has our Presidential Primary Election.

Election Day — your last day to vote — is around the corner on Tuesday, March 5. And if you’re a registered California voter, your ballot should already have arrived in your mailbox (and if it hasn’t, here’s what to do about a missing ballot.)

But what if you make a mistake on your ballot as you’re filling it out? Or you’re just not sure how to fill it out in the first place?

Read on to learn how to fill out your ballot, how important your signature is, and your options if you need to start again with a fresh ballot. 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:

First of all: Am I registered to vote?

If you’ve changed your name or the political party choice you previously registered to vote with, you’ll need to re-register. And if you’re unsure whether you’re already registered to vote or can’t remember which party preference you already have, check your voter registration details ASAP.

More Election Guides

Making sure you’re registered — and to the right address — is crucial for getting your ballot on time and being able to vote. Read more about how to make sure you receive your ballot and what to do if your ballot hasn’t arrived.

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 request a cross-over ballot if you want to be a no party preference voter. But 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 to vote as a member of the party you want to vote for (or reregister as one if you’re already registered as a no party preference voter.)

An important note: The official deadline to register online to vote at registertovote.ca.gov was back on Feb. 20.  But if you missed the deadline to register (or reregister) online, don’t panic: After Feb. 20, you can still complete the same-day voter registration process (also known as “conditional voting”) and request your ballot in person at your county elections office or polling location, up until when polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, March 5. You just don’t have the online option any longer.

A San Francisco resident drops their mail-in ballot into a mailbox on Oct. 6, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

My ballot has arrived, but there are no presidential candidates on it. Why?

A person who is registered to vote as “no party preference” (sometimes referred to as an “independent”) will automatically receive a ballot without presidential candidates on it. If that’s you, you’ll need to take action to receive a new ballot and be able to vote in California’s presidential primary election.

So if you do, 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. If you do, 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 these steps depending on which party you want to vote for, and your original ballot will be canceled. Luckily, you have until polls close on 8 p.m. Election Day itself to take action.

(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.)

Do I have to vote by mail?

No. Since 2020, every registered voter in California now receives a mail-in ballot by default, without having to request it as in previous years. But voting by mail is still one option open to you.

You can still vote in person, either at an early voting location before or on Election Day (March 5) itself. If you live in Alameda, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara or Sonoma, Vote Centers in your county opened on Feb. 24 (or earlier in some cases), 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, although some early voting sites will be available in those counties — for example, at your county elections office. See where early voting will open in your county.

How do I return my ballot when I’ve completed it?

Ballots can be returned through the Postal Service (the return postage is already paid) or dropped off at a voting location or in a ballot drop box.

Keep in mind that the Postal Service must postmark your ballot envelope by the end of Election Day for your vote to count — and the last collection at many mailboxes is 5 p.m. If it’s getting late in the day on March 5, you might consider using a county drop box instead of a USPS mailbox.

Read more about how to return your ballot in the Bay Area.

How do I fix a mistake on my ballot?

It’s important to note that each county is slightly different on how they’d prefer you to address a mistake on your ballot and will often provide specific details about corrections on the ballot itself. If you have a specific question about your ballot that isn’t answered here, you can always contact your local county elections office for advice and instructions.

What if I have problems with my signature?

When you’re done filling out your ballot, you must sign the envelope. But two big mistakes people make with their signatures are:

  • Forgetting to sign their ballot entirely.
  • Making a signature that doesn’t match the signature they made when they registered to vote.

Why wouldn’t your signature match the one on file? If you registered to vote at a young age, maybe your signature has changed over time. Or perhaps you registered to vote at the DMV and provided your signature on a screen with a stylus, which doesn’t quite replicate how you’d make your signature with a pen on paper.

If you registered this way, one simple way to avoid any signature problems is to take a quick glance at the signature that’s on your driver’s license or state ID — because that’s the one you want your ballot signature to match.

Even if you didn’t register at the DMV, that signature on your most recent license or state ID is still very likely the one to emulate. That’s because when you register to vote online, your county elections office electronically requests a copy of the signature the DMV currently has for you, and this information is regularly updated.

To further set your mind at rest, know that California isn’t an “exact match” state and doesn’t demand voters’ signatures 100% replicate the signature that’s on file.

What if I just don’t know my ‘correct’ signature I’m registered to vote with?

If you’re really worried about the signature on your envelope not matching the signature you’re registered to vote with, there are two good solutions.

One: If it’s on or before Feb. 20, you can reregister to vote with your current signature to be sure that the state now has your most recent one on file. If you are reregistering after Feb. 20, you’d need to complete the same-day voter registration process (also known as “conditional voting”) and request your ballot in person at your county elections office or polling location.

Two: In 2021, Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, told us there’s another solution if you’re worried about your signature: Go vote in person, if you’re able.

That’s because the signature only goes on your ballot’s envelope — and if you’re voting in person, there’s no envelope because that ballot then goes straight into the ballot box without needing that envelope at all.

“So if you want that satisfaction of seeing your ballot drop in the box and know that it’s not going to get held up because of some signature issue, you can go and vote in person,” Alexander said.

I already mailed my ballot, but now I’m paranoid about my signature. What if I messed it up?

Rest assured: There’s a whole system in place to help you correct your mistake.

If your county’s election office detects a signature mismatch on your ballot, they’ll reach out to you via mail to verify and work with you to correct it so that your ballot can be counted after all. It’s called “curing” a ballot.

This system is also applied when it looks like a member of a voter’s family might have signed their ballot instead of the voter. This happens a surprising amount when one household has several voters who all receive a ballot in the mail.

One way to get peace of mind: Sign up to track your ballot, and you’ll find out about any issues with your ballot or your signature quickly.

A San Francisco resident hands their mail-in ballot to US Postal Service employee Elmer Padilla on Oct. 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

I marked my ballot in a way I didn’t intend. How do I fix it?

First, don’t panic. People make mistakes on ballots and find good ways to correct them.

Counties give different directions to voters about what to do if they make a mistake (remember: Read the instructions!), but you can usually simply x out the choice you didn’t intend.

The job of county elections officials — once they’ve verified your signature — is to make sure your ballot can be read correctly. If that means that your corrections on your ballot have resulted in readability issues, officials working in teams of two will actually remake it for you according to the intent you’ve signaled with your corrections.

Some counties, like Alameda, ask that you actually contact them first if you make a serious mistake — including voting for the wrong candidate — so they can send you a replacement ballot. So, wherever you live, it’s a good idea to check with your local elections office first to see what they recommend if you make a mistake.

And remember, there’s always this option …

What if I just want a new ballot?

If you’ve made a big mistake on your ballot — too big to fix — your best plan of action may be to focus on getting a new one. You can:

  • Call your county elections office and ask them to cancel that ballot and issue a new one to you.
  • Go to your county elections office with your spoiled ballot during business hours and vote right there at the counter.
  • Take advantage of the early voting options available in many counties.
  • Go to a voting site on Election Day, March 5, turn in your spoiled ballot there, and get a new ballot.

You can also do this if you’ve accidentally damaged your ballot in some way (coffee spills happen).

A San Francisco resident puts on an ‘I Voted!’ sticker after completing their mail-in ballot on Oct. 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

I think I put the wrong date on my envelope.

First off, that date should be the date you signed your envelope — not your date of birth. (We had many questions during the 2020 election about this.)

But if you’re worried you messed up the date, don’t worry. Elections officials said that the date they’re really looking for is the date that the ballot is postmarked to make sure it was submitted on time.

Election officials will only truly scrutinize the date you’ve written if they receive your ballot after Election Day.

“Like maybe you mailed it Monday before Election Day,” John Gardner, assistant registrar of voters for Solano County, told us in 2020. “That’s when we have to start looking at postmarks on the ballot, or date that the voter signed the envelope, to determine if we can count the ballot or not.”

And if you haven’t mailed your envelope yet, it’s an easy fix: Just clearly cross out the incorrect date on the envelope and write in the correct one above it.

What if I use assistive technology to complete forms?

Getting physical assistance with filling out your ballot from someone you trust is always fine, whether you’re voting at home or at a voting site. You just need to make sure your signature is your own and matches the one you’re registered to vote with.

Disabled voters can also choose to use the Remote Accessible Vote-by-Mail system to vote privately and independently at home, using their usual assistive device on their home computer to fill out the ballot on their screen and then print and mail it.

Every voting location in California is also equipped with an accessible voting unit. Here, voters with blindness or low vision or who have a disability that limits their dexterity will be able to use the assistive device of their choice that allows them to vote privately and independently.

How can I make sure my mail-in ballot gets there on time? 

Remember, one big reason that ballots get disqualified in elections is that voters mail them too late: either too late on Election Day itself (after U.S. Postal Service mailboxes have already been collected) or after Election Day.

To be counted in this election, your ballot must be postmarked on Election Day, March 5, at the latest. Your ballot has seven days — until March 12. to reach your county elections office.

So, in this election, it’s as crucial as ever to make sure you have a plan for voting on time — and if you’re not voting in person, that means making sure you get your ballot into a mailbox or into a secure voting drop box, at a polling location or your county elections office, by the time polls close on March 5.

A few other common ballot mistakes to watch out for …

Make sure you’re filling out and signing the ballot and envelope with your name on it: It’s common to see partners or roommates accidentally mix up their ballots. So make sure you’re signing the document that bears your name.

Make sure you use a black or blue pen: It reads better, and it doesn’t slow workers down when they have to check to see what voter intent was. (Don’t use a felt-tip or a Sharpie that bleeds through the paper and marks other pages on your ballot.)

Don’t mail an empty envelope: It does happen. Keeping your envelope and your ballot together in your home might be a helpful way of avoiding this problem. And, of course, when you’re ready to mail your ballot, make sure it’s actually inside the envelope before you seal it.

Don’t bother with a stamp: Your ballot envelope is postage-paid. You don’t need it.

Bei Kao holds her ‘I Voted’ sticker after voting in Oakland on Oct. 27, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

My ballot is missing or hasn’t arrived. What should I do?

If your ballot still hasn’t materialized this close to Election Day on March 5, don’t panic: You have options. Here’s what to do:

Check that you’re actually registered to vote — and to the right address.

Input your details on the secretary of state’s voter status page to check your registration status. This will show whether you’re actually registered to vote and to which address. It should also show whether your ballot was mailed out.

You can also use the Where’s My Ballot? Tool to check whether your ballot has been sent.

If you’re registered to the wrong address, you can update it before Feb. 20. 

If you update your voter registration and address using the secretary of state’s voter status page before the Feb. 20 deadline to register online, your county will cancel the ballot that went to your old address and send you a new one.

And if it turns out your ballot was missing because your voter registration wasn’t updated, don’t feel bad — people move all the time and forget to update their registrations accordingly.

Updating your address at the post office doesn’t, in fact, update your voter registration. The DMV, on the other hand, will update your voter registration details if you update your address with them.

If your voter registration address was correct but your ballot never showed up, you still have options.

If it’s more than six days before Election Day, you can call your county elections office and ask them to send a new ballot. Jump straight to our list of Bay Area county elections offices.

Your county elections office won’t mail you a ballot six days or less before Election Day because it can’t be sure the ballot will reach you in time. So, if you’re trying to get a ballot in the immediate run-up to Election Day, go to your county elections office in person and request one at the counter.

Starting Feb. 5, your county elections office is open for early voting through Election Day on March 5, so you could also go there during opening hours and vote right there in person. More early voting locations will be opening throughout February.

And remember, if you’re not actually registered to vote, you always have the option of same-day voter registration (also known as conditional voter registration) at a voting location, where you can then fill out and submit your ballot, too.

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Contact your county directly

Across the Bay Area, elections officials are encouraging voters to reach out — early — with any questions or concerns. Here’s the contact information for your county:

  • Alameda: For information about voting by mail, registration and polling place lookup, call 510-267-8683.
  • Contra Costa: Call 925-335-7800 or email voter.services@vote.cccounty.us.
  • Marin: Call 415-473-6456 or go to the Marin County elections webpage to send a form email.
  • Napa: Call 707-253-4321 or email the elections office at elections@countyofnapa.org.
  • San Francisco: Call 415-554-4375 or email sfvote@sfgov.org.
  • San Mateo: Call 888-762-8683 or email registrar@smcacre.org.
  • Santa Clara: Call toll-free at 866-430-VOTE (8683)​ or email registrar@rov.sccgov.org.
  • SolanoCall 707-784-6675 or 888-933-VOTE (8683). You can also email elections@solanocounty.com.
  • Sonoma: Call 707-565-6800 or toll-free at 800-750-8683.

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.

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