Provisional, Mail-In, In-Person — What’s the Deal?

Confused about voting in the upcoming election? Here's how to do it.

I have seen many terms like “provisional,” “mail-in,” and “in-person” voting. It’s all very confusing. Can you explain what this all means?
— Billy S.

Thank you for your question Billy.  In order to fully participate in our democracy, we encourage all eligible voters to exercise their right to vote in local, state, and national elections.  

The next election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. This year, all of California’s registered voters will be mailed a ballot no later than 29 days prior to Election Day, per Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-64-20. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an unprecedented election and new voting location rules are in place should some voters still choose to participate in-person.

This article will discuss how to register to vote in the Nov. 3, 2020 General Election, explain what a provisional ballot is, how to vote by mail, and where to find information on how to vote early and in-person.


To register to vote in California, you must be a U.S. citizen and a resident of California. You must be 18 years or older on Election Day. For information on eligibility, if an individual has a criminal history or subject to conservatorship, click here.

How to Register

To check if you’re registered to vote, go to To register online, you can fill out this online application. The application is available in several languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese. You can also register to vote using the California voter registration form or obtain a form at your local library, U.S. Post Office, or Department of Motor Vehicles offices. Note that your registration must be postmarked or submitted electronically no later than Oct. 19, 2020 to participate in the Nov. 3, 2020 election.  

What is a Provisional Ballot?

If you miss this deadline to register, you may conditionally register to vote and cast a provisional ballot by visiting your county elections office, a vote center, or a designated satellite location during the 14 days prior to, and including Election Day. For more information, click here.

A provisional ballot is a regular ballot that is placed in a special envelope prior to being put in the ballot box. Your provisional ballot will be counted after election officials have confirmed that you are registered to vote in that county and you did not already vote in that election. To check the status of your provisional ballot, click here for a list of county contacts and information on how to check the status of your provisional ballot.

How to Vote by Mail

All registered voters will be sent a vote-by-mail ballot for the November 3, 2020, General Election and registered voters do not have to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot for this election.   Instead of going to the polls on Election Day, you may vote using the vote-by-mail ballot that will be sent to you. After you vote, insert your ballot in the envelope provided and you have several options to return your voted ballot:

  1. Mail it to your county elections official (must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by your county elections office no later than Nov. 20, 2020);
  2. Return it in person to a polling place or the office of your county election officials (note that vote-by-mail ballots that are personally delivered must be delivered no later than 8 p.m. on November 3, 2020;
  3. Drop off your ballot in one of your county’s ballot drop boxes (no later than 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2020);
  4. Authorize someone to return the ballot on your behalf (must fill out the authorization section found on the outside of your ballot envelope).

For a list of county elections offices, click here.

Can I Vote Early?

California voters can also vote before Election Day — from Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 to Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. However, dates and hours vary depending on where you live. Early voting and vote-by-mail ballot drop off locations may be found on the Secretary of State’s Early Voting website.

Can I Still Vote in Person?

In-person voting locations will also be available to voters. Governor Newsom’s executive order gave California counties permission to limit in-person voting operations as protection against the spread of COVID-19 but only if they also offer three days of early voting.  If you are choosing to vote in person, make sure to confirm your polling location by by visiting the Secretary of State’s website.

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