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Politics & Policy

California is slow to tally votes. Here’s how to get your ballot counted fast

A woman in a mask sorts ballots.
The shift to vote by mail has prolonged the time it takes the state to count ballots. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The slow vote count has become a staple of California elections—and a national frustration—as the state has shifted to overwhelmingly voting by mail.

It’s the result of the additional time that California provides for mail ballots to arrive at local elections offices and the extra verification steps that workers complete before counting those votes. Because of the sheer size of the state, millions of ballots don’t get counted until weeks after election day.

But what if you want to make sure that yours is among the results rolling in on election night after the polls close? Perhaps you sleep more soundly knowing that you successfully exercised your right to vote, or maybe you want to help shape the early narratives of who’s up and who’s down.

Your best bet—easy, straightforward and cheap—is to mail back your ballot as soon as possible.

County elections offices sent a ballot to every registered California voter in early February, a month before the March 5 primary election. Those ballots now include prepaid postage, so you don’t even need a stamp. As long as it is postmarked by March 5, your ballot can arrive up to a week after the election and still be counted.

But if you return it sooner, so that workers receive it by the Friday or Saturday before the primary, your vote is likely to end up in the first batch of results released after the polls close at 8 p.m., according to Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, who served as the chief elections official of Santa Cruz County for nearly three decades before she was elected to the Legislature in 2022.

“Pretty much any ballot we got by Saturday, we would be able to process and get it through all the checks and balances to get into the count on Tuesday night,” said Pellerin, a Santa Cruz Democrat.

Sign up for California’s “Where’s My Ballot?” tracker to receive an update by text, email or phone when your ballot is officially processed. 

If you’re holding onto your ballot because you need more time to research your vote, consider returning it at an official drop box. You can find the locations on your county elections office’s website. The boxes are checked every day, Pellerin said, so ballots reach the processing center much quicker than those sent through the mail.

“Drop boxes eliminate that middle person,” she said.

For voters who are away from home around the election, a ballot mailed from anywhere or returned at any drop box in California will eventually make it back to your county elections office.

Now maybe you’re too busy to vote early, or you worry about a late-breaking scandal, or you just like tradition. Even with the shift to mail ballots, California still requires counties to offer locations to vote in person, both on Election Day until 8 p.m. and in the 10 days leading up to it. You can also find those on your county elections office’s website.

Newly this year, because of Pellerin’s Assembly Bill 626, you can simply bring your completed ballot to a vote center in your county and turn it in, rather than having to fill out a new ballot there.

“You can take that very ballot that was mailed to you, voted, walk it in, and they’ll transfer you or rekey you in as an in-person voter,” Pellerin said. “That ballot goes right in the ballot box and will be counted election night.”

If you lose your ballot or mismark it, you can also get a new one at a vote center.

Don’t forget that, while voters registered with any party can cast a ballot in most primaries in California, the presidential race has different rules. Only registered Republican voters can participate in the Republican primary, while the Democratic primary is open to independent voters who request the ballot.

If you forgot to do that, you can contact your county elections office and ask for a remote accessible mail ballot. These are emailed to you, then must be printed out and returned in the postage-paid envelope that came with your mail ballot. Because of another Pellerin bill, AB 292, language about how to do that is now included on your ballot.

“We’re just trying to remove barriers for voters and make things as easy as possible and improve the voting experience so that everyone who’s registered votes,” Pellerin said. “That’s my goal.”