Elections are always momentous events, but none more so than the upcoming one on Nov. 3, 2020. As the country reels under a pandemic and its devastating effects on the economy, a lot of doubts swirl around the issue of voting, some natural, some manufactured. Thanks to the coronavirus, this year will see a massive increase in voters opting to mail in their ballots.


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While voting by mail has been successfully carried out in several states (especially in the Northwest) in previous elections without any issues, expanding it across the country temporarily but rapidly has given bad actors the opportunity to question the process, its integrity, and its logistics.

In this article I’ll try and address many of the questions around voting in the presidential elections this year, though my focus will be the state of California. My main source of information was the California Secretary of State’s office for key dates and resources.

(If you are in another state and want a quick primer on what the current state of Vote By Mail in your state, check out https://www.democracydocket.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/41/2020/07/Safeguarding-Our-Democracy-with-Vote-by-Mail_DemocracyDocket_UPDATED_JULY2020.pdf)

What is the difference between absentee voting and voting by mail?

Typically, absentee voting means that the voter has to give an excuse to the registrar of voters about why they cannot vote in person to receive a ballot by mail. However, for the November election, the governor of California has signed an executive order to the effect that every registered voter will receive a ballot by mail, no excuse needed. So everyone who wants to mail or drop off their ballot at a designated drop-off box will be able to do so. (Extra info for election nerds: in 2016 a law was passed allowing individual counties to opt in to Voter’s Choice, whereby the voters of the county could choose to vote by mail or in person; every voter would receive a mail-in ballot. My county, Santa Clara is one of the counties that opted in. However, for the purposes of this particular election, every voter in every county will receive a mail-in ballot).

Can I still vote in person?

Yes. Because of the pandemic the number of polling places have been significantly reduced and you are encouraged to vote by mail. However, if you still want to have the experience of voting in person, you can go to a designated polling place. In a Voter’s Choice County, like Santa Clara, you can go to any polling place. In other counties, you may have to go to a specific polling place that is linked to your address. Here is where you can go to check your polling place: https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/polling-place/

See below for the list of counties that opted in to Voter’s Choice.


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IMPORTANT: If you choose to vote in person, be sure to carry your mail-in ballot with you to the polling center. Otherwise your vote may be counted as provisional.

Will my mail-in ballot reach the county registrar’s office in time? Will it be counted in time?

The California Secretary of State’s office is expecting a massive influx of mail-in ballots this time, not surprisingly. So it has made it easier for counties to manage the increase in vote by mail (VBM). First, ballots will be mailed out latest by October 5 (probably earlier for larger counties). Counties will also begin processing the ballot on October 5. Which means that the earlier you vote, the more likely it is that your vote will be counted by Election Day, November 3, 2020.

However, should you vote at the last moment (before polls close on November 3), the county will accept your ballot up to November 20, 2020, 2 weeks later than usual, to accommodate for any USPS delays.

Still the message is: VOTE EARLY.

Is there a way for me to track my ballot?

Why yes, there is! This year the state has unveiled a cool tracking tool that tracks your ballot from the time it is mailed to you to the time it is processed. All you have to do is register at http://wheresmyballot.sos.ca.gov. It took me less than 30 seconds to do this and I am registered for all future elections.


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I am not registered to vote yet. What are my options?

It is very easy to register to vote online at https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/voter-registration/ and you can do this right up to October 19, 2020. However, if you miss the date, or turn 18 after the date, you can do in-person registration at the county registrar’s office or at your polling place right up to the date of the election. But this is a “conditional registration” so your best bet is to register on or before October 19 if you can. More information can be found at the site given above.

I think I am registered to vote, but I am not sure. Can I check?

Yes, you can check your voting status at https://voterstatus.sos.ca.gov/. It is highly recommended that you do this as soon as possible to avoid any confusion later.

Do I need voter ID in California?

If this is the first time you are casting a vote in a federal election, you will have to show ID if you are voting in person. Otherwise, voter ID is not required in California. Acceptable forms of voter ID are recent utility bill, sample ballot, drivers license, passport, or a student ID card with a name and photograph.


Casting doubt on the integrity of your vote is a shamelessly partisan move by certain parties in this election, designed to turn people off from voting and setting up a framework to challenge legitimate election results. The Brennan Center (https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/Briefing_Memo_Debunking_Voter_Fraud_Myth.pdf) issued a seminal report on voter fraud and irregularities and “found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.

But how does the county ensure that votes are genuine?

The envelope in which the mail in ballot is returned has two forms of identification – the voter’s signature and a bar code or QR code containing the name and address information for the voter. Before the envelope is opened, these two forms of identification are used to determine the legitimacy of the vote. Then the envelope is discarded so that the ballot can remain secret.

Remember that several states like Oregon have already had VBM without any trouble with voter fraud. There is no reason to believe states that are implementing VBM this time will have any issues, except for some delay in counting the votes. Here is a sample of what your return envelope may look like:


(photo provided/Santa Clara County officials)

What if I drop my ballot in the ballot box and then go in and vote in person (double voting)?

To prevent this kind of fraud, the state has made it compulsory for you to bring your mail-in ballot with you to the polling booth if you choose to vote in person. If you don’t have your official ballot with you, you can still vote, but your vote will be considered provisional till the registrar of voters checks to make sure you haven’t voted twice.

I have forgotten what my signature looks like!

It is true that thousands of ballots get sent back because the signature does not match the signature on the voter registration form, though this is still only about 1% of the votes cast. If this happens to you, the county registrar has till November 25 to notify you and you have 8 days (by 5 p.m. December 1) to rectify this by sending in a signature verification form. The best way to make sure your vote counts is to vote early so any such problems can be fixed soon.

What can I do as a responsible voter to make sure my vote counts?

-        VOTE EARLY

-        Make sure your signature is on the mail-in ballot and that it matches the signature on your voter registration form

-        Bubble in your choices clearly and completely

-        Drop off the ballot at the nearest drop-off box as soon as you have finished

-        If you are able to, become a poll-worker; it is a paid job. More information on this at https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/poll-worker-information/

-        Encourage friends and family to do their civic duty to vote. Many of us are cynical about government, but it is important to remember that we are the employers of the government and it is important to hire good people if we want our work to be done!

KEY DATES TO REMEMBER (2020 General Elections - California)

October 5: Last day for ballots to be mailed out to voters.

October 5: First day for ballots to be processed.

October 19: Last day to register to vote online.

October 31: Latest day polling places will be open statewide. Could be open earlier, depending on the county.

November 3: Last day to register in person.

November 3: Election day.

November 3: Last day for postmarking your ballot for this election.

November 20: Last day for the county to accept ballots (postmarked November 3 or earlier).

November 25: Last day for the county to return ballots not meeting verification requirements.

December 11: Last day for the Secretary of State to prepare, certify, declare, and file a statement of the vote from the compiled election returns and post to the Secretary of State's website.

(Vidya Pradhan is an Indian American freelance journalist and author of several books. She is currently working on a project to capture and identify mis- and dis-information in social media).

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