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What you need to know before voting in California’s primary election

People vote on the beach
(Los Angeles Times)

Leer en español.

The California primary election is a day away, with presidential, congressional and state legislative races on the March 3 ballot. The state is voting earlier than usual, in an effort to boost its influence in deciding the presidential nomination.

This will be the first primary in which the California Voter’s Choice Act changes the way registered voters in 15 counties — Los Angeles included — cast their ballots. Voters will have several ways to make their preferences known.

Here’s some of what voters need to know:

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  1. Can I vote in this election?
  2. How do I register?
  3. I’m a “no party preference” voter. What should I know before voting?
  4. What’s changing with voting in California?
  5. How do I vote by mail?
  6. What do I need to know about voting in person?
  7. How can I keep track of all these deadlines?

Have questions about the California state voting process? Our Times reporters will try to answer them here.

1

Can I vote in this election?

How do I know if I’m eligible to vote in California?

You must be 18 years or older on election day, a U.S. citizen and state resident. You cannot be in state or federal prison or on felony parole, or deemed by a judge to be mentally incompetent.

If I’m homeless, can I vote?

Yes, you can. Here’s what else to keep in mind.

2

How do I register to vote?

When is the deadline to register to vote?

The deadline to register online or by mail was Feb. 18.

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If you’ve missed the deadline to register or to update your voter registration information, a new California law will allow voters to register to vote on election day at a county elections office, neighborhood polling place or community vote center.

Your ballot will be counted once your county elections office verifies your registration.

3

I’m a ‘no party preference’ voter. What should I know before voting?

Does California have an open or closed primary?

California has both kinds of primary elections, depending on the race that’s being decided. A decade ago, voters created the “top two” primary for state and congressional elections — in which all candidates appear on a single ballot and the two who receive the most votes, regardless of party, advance to the November election.

But those rules don’t apply to the presidential race, which uses what some call a “modified” closed primary system.

In a closed primary election, only voters registered with a political party can participate in the contest, unless state and national party leaders decide otherwise. In California, an exception is made for only one group of voters, and in only some cases: voters who are registered as having “no party preference.”

Three political parties — Democrats, Libertarians and American Independentsallow unaffiliated voters to vote for their presidential candidates, by requesting a “crossover ballot.”

The state’s three other officially recognized parties — Republicans, Green, and Peace and Freedom — will not allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the presidential contest. In the case of the GOP, that decision has proved controversial.

How do I request a crossover ballot?

If you’re a “no party preference” voter, you can vote for a Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent party presidential candidate.

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The deadline to request a crossover vote-by-mail ballot was Feb. 25.

You can still request a crossover ballot when you vote in-person at a vote center or, if you don’t live in a county participating in Voter’s Choice, your neighborhood polling location.

To view a sample ballot, visit the California secretary of state’s Voter Information Guide.

4

What’s changing with voting in California?

What is the Voter’s Choice Act?

In 2016, California lawmakers created the Voter’s Choice Act to revamp the state’s voting system, with the goal of providing voters in participating counties more flexibility on when and how they cast ballots.

Fifteen counties are participating this year: Los Angeles, along with Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Sacramento, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Tuolumne.

The most important change under this law is that it ends the use of neighborhood polling places in those counties. A more limited number of community vote centers, which provide services including voter registration, will open 10 days before election day. Additional vote centers will open the weekend before election day. The law also requires secure drop boxes for ballots to be put in place by early February.

Counties not participating in the Voter’s Choice Act will continue to use assigned polling locations. You can find the address of your polling place on the back page of the sample ballot booklet that was mailed to you. If you have not received your sample ballot, contact your county elections office.

L.A. County began mailing out its sample ballots Jan. 27. If you live in L.A. County and have not received your sample ballot in the mail, you can contact the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

Voters in L.A. County also have the choice to view an electronic version of the sample ballot via email. You can also access an Interactive Sample Ballot to review and mark your selections before going to a voting center. It is not online voting.

In 14 of the California counties participating in the Voter’s Choice Act, every registered voter will receive a ballot in the mail. The one county where this isn’t happening is Los Angeles. L.A. County voters who don’t request an absentee ballot by Feb. 25 will have to visit a vote center to participate.

Voting machine
Los Angeles County voters will use a new interactive ballot-marking machine in the California primary on Tuesday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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When does the early voting period begin?

All counties in California will offer in-person early voting starting Feb. 3. Counties adopting the Voter’s Choice Act began to open ballot drop-off locations on Feb. 4.

Vote centers will begin opening Feb. 22 for in-person early voting.

5

How do I vote by mail?

How do I request a vote-by-mail ballot?

The deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot was Feb. 25. If you did not request a mail-in ballot by the deadline, you can vote in-person at a vote center or, if you don’t live in a county participating in Voter’s Choice, go do your neighborhood polling location.

Counties are required by law to start mailing out ballots by Feb. 3. Ballots typically arrive about three to five days after they have been sent out. If you have not received your ballot after a week, contact your county elections office.

If you live in L.A. County or one of the other 14 counties participating in Voter’s Choice, you can mail in your ballot, or drop it off at a secure county ballot box or at any vote center in your county. Using a county ballot box will not affect your permanent vote-by-mail status.

Ballots returned to county ballot boxes will be processed as they are received. Once a ballot is cast, it will be counted. You can check your ballot status through your county elections office.

Will my ballot count if I mail it on election day?

Yes, ballots that are postmarked on or before March 3 will be counted as long as they arrive at a county elections office no later than March 6.

6

What do I need to know about voting in person?

What is a ‘vote center’ and where are they?

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L.A. County voters can cast a ballot at any vote center in the county. (For a list of vote centers in other Voter’s Choice Act-participating counties, check with your county registrar’s office.)

On election day, the vote centers will be open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. for at least eight hours a day (hours of operation will vary by location).

What identification is required?

In most cases, you will not be required to show identification when you vote in person. If you are voting for the first time in an election, you may be asked to show identification if you did not provide the last four digits of your Social Security number or driver’s license or California ID number when you registered to vote.

If this applies to you, you should bring identification with you to vote, or include a copy with your vote-by-mail ballot. The state elections division has a list of acceptable forms of identification. As you vote repeatedly in other elections, your voter file will be maintained, and you should not be asked for identification.

Can I get time off work to vote?

Yes. If you know you need time off in order to vote on election day, you can give your employer two working days’ notice in accordance with the California Elections Code.

You can take up to two hours off to vote without losing pay. You can take time off either at the beginning or end of your shift, whichever allows the most time for voting and the least time off for your regular working shift, unless otherwise mutually agreed.

After your ballot is cast, you will be given an “I voted” sticker.

Much of the current process for voting in L.A. County — ballots, polling locations, vote tallying and more — will change for the primary election in March. Here’s what you need to know to be ready.

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How can I keep track of all these deadlines?

Fear not: The Times has a calendar of upcoming deadlines and important presidential election dates. You can add these events to your phone or desktop by subscribing (compatible with Apple, Google and Outlook calendars). You can also receive updates on Los Angeles Times coverage.

Have more questions about the voting process? Fill out this form, which also appears below, and reporters at The Times will try to answer them.

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.