Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Voting at your polling place: Answers to some common questions

By Bonnie E. Glaser

Registration and voting in California is by county.  You must cast your vote in the county in which you are registered.  The last day to register (or re-register if you moved, changed your name, etc) was October 22, 2012.  For the first time Californians could register online up until midnight on the 22nd.

1. To check your registration, first go this page on the Secretary of State’s website:  http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/registration-status/

which lists how to contact your county to find out if you are registered.  In many cases you can do this online, and in others there is a phone number to call.

This, for example, is the entry for Alameda County:


or call (510) 272-6933

2. To find out what is on your ballot and where to vote, go to the League of Women Voters of California’s ‘smartvoter’ website which provides that information:   http://smartvoter.org/

If your country does not subscribe to smartvoter, then smartvoter will provide the link to the county’s website where you can find the same information.

If you’d like to go directly to your county elections website find it here:


3. You may be voting by mail, which is extremely popular in California.  At least 50% of registered voters in the state have requested a vote-by-mail ballot for this election.  If you are registered as a permanent vote-by-mail voter then you have received your official ballot in the mail with a return envelope. Your voted ballot must be back at your county by 8pm on November 6.  If you did not put your voted ballot in the mail last week, then do not worry. You can drop it off at any polling place in your county.  However, if you leave it in another county, it will not make back to your county in time to be counted. Even though we are voting for President all over the country, your California vote for President (and for any other race) will only count in the county in which you are registered.

After making sure your vote-by-mail ballot goes to the right county, the next most important thing is to make sure you have signed your envelope where indicated.  This signature will be checked against your signature on your registration form (even one that you completed many years ago).  If you registered online then your signature on the envelope is checked against your signature on your driver’s license.

Often voters worry that their vote-by-mail ballot did not arrive at the county, but this is something you can check as well.  See this page for how to check in your county:   http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ballot-status/

All but 8 small counties have an on-line ballot status check, and those 8 counties have a phone number for checking ballot status.  While the requirement is only that the county tell you whether your voted ballot was received at the office, some county ballot status systems will also tell you if your vote-by-mail ballot was counted and if it wasn't, the reason why it was not counted.

Two common misconceptions about vote-by mail ballots should be cleared up.

A. Vote-by-mail ballots are not private because your name is on the envelope.  This is not true.  The checking of signatures is a process that is done with a stack of ballots before they are opened.  Once they are deemed valid, the ballots are separated from the envelopes in a way that the office workers cannot see the voters’ names or the ballot choices.

B.  Vote-by-mail ballots are not counted unless there is a close race.  This is also not true.  All ballots for which the signature on the envelope has been verified are counted.  In fact vote-by-mail ballots received before Election Day are typically scanned in the days before election day and ‘tallied’ at 8pm on Election Day; this is before polling place tallies have come to the office, so these early vote-by-mail ballots are actually the first votes to be reported by the county.