Voting Rights in California: What Every Voter Needs to Know

If you’re a California voter, here’s some important information to help you exercise this essential right.

1. Cell Phones and Voting

Is it legal to take a “ballot selfie”?

As of Jan 1, 2017, ballot selfies are now legal!1AB 1494

Is it legal to use a phone or tablet in the voting booth?

Yes, it is legal to use any handheld electronic device, such as a smartphone, cell phone, or tablet, iPad, etc, to help you vote. But you can’t photograph or record others in a polling place with the intent to dissuade them from voting.2AB 1707 (2019)

2. Voter Eligibility & Registration

Who is eligible to vote? 

You are eligible to vote in California if you are a U.S. citizen, California resident, at least 18 years old and not in prison or on parole for conviction of a felony.3Elections Code Sec 2300; felony=any crime involving jail time of 1 year or more. see glossary; parolees are now eligible to vote due to Prop 17 that passed in 2020

If you are eligible to vote, you must register in order to actually cast a ballot.

Prior law required voters to register to vote at least 15 days prior to an election. Now, voters can register and vote on the same day, up through the end of election day.4SB 72 (2019) For same-day voter registration, you must do so at a vote center or polling place. However, your registration will be “conditional” and your vote will be “provisional” until your eligibility to vote is verified by elections officials.

Note: you only need to register once and then you are registered permanently. If you move, you must update your address, which you can now also do through the end of election day.5SB 207 (2020)

To register online in order to vote in an upcoming election, you still must do so at least 15 days prior to the election. If it’s within the 15 days, you will need to register at a vote center or polling place.

Who is eligible to vote in the primary elections?

Each political party determines whether you must be registered with that party in order to vote in its presidential primary election. If you are not registered with any party, called No Party Preference, you may vote in one of the party’s primaries that allows this. You must request that party’s crossover ballot.

The following parties allow No Party Preference voters to vote in their primary:

  • Democratic Party
  • Libertarian Party
  • American Independent Party

Note: the Republican party does not allow crossover voting.

As of February 2020, you can now change your party registration or affiliation up until the close of polls on election day.6SB 207 (2020)

Is it illegal to vote if I am not eligible?

Yes it is a crime to vote if you know you are not eligible, or to claim you are eligible to vote if you aren’t eligible for any reason. The penalty is up to 3 years in jail.7Elections Code Sec 18560

3. Procedures at the polling place

What if they don’t have my name on the voting list when I go to vote? 

If your name is not listed on the voter list, you have the right to cast a “provisional ballot,” which means that your vote will only count if officials can later find you on the full voter list.8Elections Code Sec 2300

When the polls close, does that mean all voting stops immediately?

No. As long as you are in line at the polling place before the official polls closing time, you may cast your ballot.

Will my ballot be kept secret?

Yes, the government is required to keep your ballot secret.9Elections Code Sec 2300

What if someone tries to intimidate me at the voting booth? 

You have the right to protection from intimidation or harassment in casting your ballot.10Elections Code Sec 2300; This is also protected by federal law: U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 245

Is it legal to stand outside a polling place and ask people to vote for something?

This is called electioneering and it is a crime (misdemeanor). It’s illegal for anyone to do any sort of campaigning or even talking to voters about what they should vote for, within 100 feet of any polling place in California.11Elections Code Sec 18370

What if I make a mistake on my ballot?

If you make a mistake on your ballot and haven’t put it in the box yet, you have the right to receive a new ballot (but once you drop your ballot in, you can’t re-vote). Vote-by-mail voters may also request and receive a new ballot if they return their ballot to an elections official before the polls close.12Elections Code Sec 2300

Can I get help voting?

If you need it, you have the right to receive assistance. You can also bring someone to help you vote,13Voting Rights Act Section 208; Elections Code Sec 2300 but it can’t be your employer or union representative.

Can anyone come with me to vote?

Generally anyone other than your employer or union representative.

Do I have to show ID to vote?

In most cases, you are NOT required to show ID at your polling place. However, if you are a newly registered voter, you may be asked to show some form of identification. But you have the right to cast a provisional ballot even if you don’t provide the documentation.

Acceptable forms of identification: passport, driver license, student ID, copy of recent utility bill, the sample ballot booklet you received from your county elections office, or another document sent to you by a government agency.

4. Voting by Mail

Am I allowed to vote by mail? 

You have the right to vote by mail if you have requested and received a mail-in ballot. Anyone can be a permanent vote-by-mail voter; no special qualifications are necessary.

When do I need to mail my ballot by?

Your mail-in ballot must be postmarked by election day and arrive within 3 business days in order to count. But you can also drop it off at a polling place on election day (see below).

Can I bring my mail-in ballot to a polling place?

Yes. You have the right to return a completed vote-by-mail ballot to ANY voting location in your county.

If I’m a vote by mail voter, can I vote instead at the polling place?

Yes, but if you don’t turn in your mail-in ballot, you will need to vote by provisional ballot.

Is it legal to ask someone for their vote at the time they are filling out their mail in ballot?

It is a crime (misdemeanor) for a candidate or representative of a candidate; or a proponent, opponent, or representative of a proponent or opponent, of a ballot measure; to solicit the vote of a voter while in the presence of the voter as they are filling out their mail-in ballot. However, it is not illegal for any other person (other than the above) to talk to someone about their vote while they are filling out their vote by mail ballot.14Elections Code Sec 18371

5. Language

Do I have the right to vote in my language?

You have the right to election materials in your language, if there are enough residents in your neighborhood to justify printing them. You can also bring someone to help translate the ballot for you.15Voting Rights Act Section 208; Elections Code Sec 2300

6. Ensuring election legitimacy

Do elections officials need to answer my questions?

You have the right to ask questions of elections officials about election procedures and to receive an answer or be directed to the appropriate official for an answer. However, if persistent questioning disrupts the ability to do their duties, officials may stop responding.16Elections Code Sec 2300

Do I have the right to observe the elections procedures?

You have the right to observe the elections process.

How do I report suspicious election activity?

You have the right to report any illegal or fraudulent activity to a local elections official or to the Secretary of State’s Office.17Elections Code Sec 2300

Is it illegal to pay a voter to vote a certain way or not vote at all?

Yes it is a crime for any person to offer anything of value in exchange for a vote. The punishment is up to 3 years in prison.18Elections Code Sec 18521

Is it illegal to vote more than once in the same election?

Yes it is a crime to vote twice or more in the same election, and the punishment is up to 3 years in jail.19Elections Code Sec 18560

7. Your personal voter information & privacy

Is my voter information private?

  • When you register to vote, the information you include in your registration will be used by elections officials to send you official information on the voting process, such as the location of your polling place and the official voter guide.
  • The government may also give this information to a candidate for office, a ballot measure committee, or other person for election, scholarly, journalistic, political, or governmental purposes, as determined by the Secretary of State. But they can’t release your driver license or social security number.
  • Companies are not allowed to use this information for commercial purposes, and it is a misdemeanor crime if they do.

Is there any way to prevent my voter information from being released to anyone?

If you face a life-threatening situation you may qualify for confidential voter status. For more information, contact the Secretary of State’s Safe at Home program toll-free at (877) 322-5227 or visit Safe at Home.

8. More voting and elections related laws

What is ballot harvesting and is it legal in California?

In California, voters are allowed to give their mail ballot to any other person to submit on the voter’s behalf.20AB 1921 Collecting ballots from voters in this way is often referred to as “ballot harvesting” or simply “ballot collecting.” It is generally legal, but the person returning a ballot on behalf of a voter must provide their name, signature and relation to the voter on the return ballot. Voters must also know who specifically is returning their ballot.

However, ballot collection boxes are NOT legal unless they are official boxes established by local elections officials (not any political party).

Are candidates required to show their tax returns?

No, the government cannot force candidates to disclose their taxes in order to be on the ballot in California. The legislature attempted to create this requirement, but it was struck down as a violation of the California Constitution.

For more federal voting laws, see our Guide to Voter Laws in the U.S.

How do ballot measures get on the ballot?

See our Guide to California Ballot Measures.


Protect Your Rights

  • For more info, check out the California Secretary of State website.
  • If you believe you have been denied any of these rights, or you are aware of any election misconduct, or you just have an election related question, you can call the Secretary of State’s confidential toll-free Voter Hotline at (800) 345-VOTE (8683).
  • If you have been subject to any intimidation, you can also contact the U.S. Department of Justice.

Related Pages

Guide to California Ballot Measures

Civil and Political Rights in California

Free Speech

Voting Rights in the U.S.

See all Legal Guides


Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

References[+]

Share the Legal Info With Your Friends: