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How To Fill Out Your Recall Ballot — And How To Correct A Mistake

Beth LaBerge / KQED
A San Francisco resident fills out their mail-in ballot on Oct. 6, 2020.

On Sept. 14, there'll be a recall election to decide whether Gov. Gavin Newsom will be replaced — and the stakes are high.

If more than 50% of the total voters in this recall election say "yes" to recalling Newsom, he will be recalled and whichever replacement candidate gets the most votes will become governor of California for the rest of Newsom’s term, ending in January 2023.

If you're a registered California voter, you've probably already received your ballot. But what if you're unsure of how to fill it out according to how you want to vote — or if you've made a mistake?


We spoke with Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, for expert answers to the questions we've received on how to fill out your ballot, how important your signature is and your options if you need to start again with a fresh ballot.

How to fill out your recall ballot properly 'How do I make very sure I'm voting for or against recalling Newsom?'

Your ballot has two things to vote on, in the form of two questions: whether you want to recall Newsom, and which candidate you want to succeed him if he is recalled.

Question 1 reads: “Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?” Yes or No.

This means:

  • If you vote "yes," you're voting to recall Newsom and remove him from his position as governor of California.
  • If you vote "no," you're voting to keep Newsom as governor of California.

RELATED: What To Know About Gov. Newsom’s Sept. 14 Recall Election

It's important to clarify this, because the yes/no expression of Question 1 might be confusing to some folks. For example, some might think a "yes" vote means a thumbs-up for Newsom (as in "yes, I support him"). It doesn't.

If you accidentally mark the wrong box, we have advice on how to address that mistake on your ballot below.

'I don't want to recall Newsom. Do I just leave Question 2 blank and forget about choosing a replacement candidate?'

It's up to you. Question 2 has a list of 46 candidates who could succeed Newsom if he is recalled. You can choose one, even if you voted "no" on the recall itself in Question 1.

Why would you want to choose a potential replacement for Newsom, if you don't want him to be recalled? If Newsom is recalled, your choice of candidate will still count toward who replaces him as governor. And answering Question 2 by choosing a succession candidate doesn't affect or invalidate a "no" answer to Question 1 about the recall itself.

In short, by voting on Question 2, you'll have a say in who California's next governor is if Newsom were to be recalled, even if you vote against the recall. But if you leave Question 2 blank, you won't have that say.

'If I don't want to recall Newsom, can I write in his name instead of choosing from the replacement candidates?'

You can, but your write-in won't be counted. That's because Newsom can't run against himself in the recall.

This also applies to any other candidates you write in who aren't official replacement candidates (i.e., listed on the ballot) or who haven't formally applied to be a write-in candidate. That leads us to ...

'So what's the difference between replacement candidates and write-in candidates?'

That list on Question 2 of your ballot contains 46 replacement candidates. These are the people who want to replace Newsom as governor of California. Read more about the top six replacement candidates in our recall voter guide.

Replacement candidates had to file their candidacy by July 16, but if a candidate wants to apply after that date, they have to file as a write-in candidate. This means that voters have to literally write in that person's name to cast a vote for them in Question 2.

A write-in vote is only counted if the person whose name you're writing has actually applied to be a write-in candidate, or is on the list of replacement candidates on the ballot. Writing in any other name (including Newsom's, remember) won't be counted.

The secretary of state's site says that the certified list of write-in candidates will be available on Sept. 3. Read more about how write-in candidates work on your ballot.

'If choosing a replacement candidate at least gives me a say in California's potential next governor, why is Newsom telling me not to do it?'

Good question. Gov. Newsom is urging voters to skip answering Question 2 on the ballot. "It's a simple thing," he has said. "Just vote 'no' and go to the mailbox and get these ballots back." Why?

We asked Guy Marzorati of KQED's California Politics and Government Desk, who says he thinks Newsom's "just vote 'no'" strategy is "for simplicity of communication."

"Newsom's campaign worked for months to successfully discourage high-profile Democrats from putting their names on the ballot," says Marzorati. "So it's not like Newsom has an ally to recommend as a backup anyway."

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation says it's important to remember that in 2003, in California's last recall election, a Democrat — then Governor Gray Davis — did put himself forward as an ostensible strong backup candidate on the ballot. California's then Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante filed as a replacement candidate on that ballot, with the message "Vote 'No' on the recall and 'Yes' on Bustamante." He was beaten by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger anyway, who served as California governor until 2011. Read more about the 2003 Cruz Bustamante situation.

"This time around, there's been a lot more, I would say, discipline among the Democratic Party leaders to keep anybody from doing the same thing that Cruz Bustamante did," says Alexander. "And so as a result, you have a very high-powered campaign supporting the retention of Gov. Newsom that is being supported by the Democratic Party, that is very vocal in urging people to vote 'no' on the recall, but then is completely silent on the question of what to do with the replacement choice." That silence, says Alexander, is "contributing to voter confusion."

Knowing all this, if you don't want Newsom to be recalled, what should you do with Question 2 on your ballot?

It's entirely up to you — but if you want a say in choosing your next California governor if Newsom is recalled, the only way to do so is by picking an official replacement candidate.

Beth LaBerge / KQED
A San Francisco resident drops their mail-in ballot into a mailbox on Oct. 6, 2020.

How to fix a mistake on your ballot

It's important to note that each county is slightly different on how they'd prefer you to address a mistake on your ballot, and will often provide specific details about corrections on the ballot itself. If you have a specific question about your ballot that isn't answered here, you can always contact your local registrar of voters for advice and instructions.

'What if I have problems with my signature?'

When you're done filling out your ballot, you must sign the envelope. But two big mistakes people make with their signatures are:

  • Forgetting to sign their ballot entirely, or...
  • Making a signature that doesn't match the signature they made when they registered to vote.

Why wouldn't your signature match the one on file? If you registered to vote at a young age, maybe your signature has changed over time. Or perhaps you registered to vote at the DMV and provided your signature on a screen with a stylus, which doesn't quite replicate how you'd make your signature with a pen on paper.
If you registered this way, one simple way to avoid any signature problems is to take a quick glance at the signature that's on your driver's license or state I.D. — because that's the one you want your ballot signature to match.

Even if you didn't register at the DMV, that signature on your most recent license or state I.D. is still very likely the one to emulate. That's because when you register to vote online, your county elections office electronically requests a copy of the signature the DMV currently has for you, and this information is regularly updated.

To further set your mind at rest, know that California isn't an "exact match" state, and doesn't demand voters' signatures 100% replicate the signature that's on file.

'What if I just don't know my 'correct' signature I'm registered to vote with?'

If you're really worried about the signature on your envelope not matching the signature you're registered to vote with, there are two good solutions.

One: If it's before Aug. 30, you can re-register to vote with your current signature, to be sure that the state now has your most recent one on file. If you are re-registering after Aug. 30, you'd need to complete the same-day voter registration process (aka conditional voting) and request your ballot in person at your county elections office or polling location.

The other solution if you're worried about your signature, says Kim Alexander? Go vote in person, if you're able.

That's because the signature only goes on your ballot's envelope — and if you're voting in person, there's no envelope, because that ballot then goes straight into the ballot box without needing that envelope at all.

"So if you want that satisfaction of seeing your ballot drop in the box and know that it's not going to get held up because of some signature issue, you can go and vote in person," says Alexander.

'I already mailed my ballot but now I'm paranoid about my signature. What if I messed it up?'

Rest assured: There's a whole system in place to help you correct your mistake.

If your county's election office detects a signature mismatch on your ballot, they'll reach out to you via mail to verify and work with you to correct it, so that your ballot can be counted after all. It's called curing a ballot.

This system is also applied when it looks like a member of a voter's family might have signed their ballot, instead of the voter. This happens a surprising amount, when one household has several voters who all receive a ballot in the mail.

One way to get peace of mind: Sign up to track your ballot, and you'll find out about any issues with your ballot or your signature quickly.

Beth LaBerge / KQED
A San Francisco resident hands their mail-in ballot to U.S. Postal Service employee Elmer Padilla on Oct. 9, 2020.

'I made a mistake on my ballot. How do I fix it?'

First, don't panic. People make mistakes on ballots and find good ways to correct them.

Counties give different directions to voters about what to do if they make a mistake (remember: Read the instructions!) but you can usually simply "X" out the choice you didn't intend.

The job of county elections officials — once they've verified your signature — is to make sure your ballot can be read correctly. If that means that your corrections on your ballot have resulted in readability issues, officials working in teams of two will actually remake it for you according to the intent you've signaled with your corrections.

That said, because there are only two questions on your recall ballot, you should be extra-concerned with getting them right. Some counties, like Alameda, ask that you actually contact them first if you make a serious mistake — including voting for the wrong candidate — so they can send you a replacement ballot. So, wherever you live, it's a good idea to check with your local elections office first to see what they recommend if you made a mistake.

And remember, there's always this option ...

'What if I just want a new ballot?'

If you've made a big mistake on your ballot — too big to fix — your best plan of action may be to focus on getting a fresh new one. And that's totally OK. You can:

Call your county elections office and ask them to cancel that ballot and issue a new one to you.

Go to your county elections office with your spoiled ballot and vote right there at the counter during business hours.

Take advantage of the early voting options available in many counties.

Go to a voting site on Election Day, Sept. 14, turn in your spoiled ballot there and get a new ballot.

You can also do this if you've accidentally damaged your ballot in some way. (Coffee spills happen.)

Beth LaBerge / KQED
A San Francisco resident puts on an "I Voted!" sticker after completing their mail-in ballot on Oct. 9, 2020.

'I think I put the wrong date on my envelope.'

First off, that date should be the date you signed your envelope — not your birthday. (We had many questions during the 2020 election about this.)

But if you're worried you messed up the date, don't worry. Elections officials say that the date they're really looking for is the date that the ballot is postmarked, to make sure it was submitted on time.

Election officials will only truly scrutinize the date you've written if they receive your ballot after Election Day.

"Like maybe you mailed it Monday before Election Day," John Gardner, assistant registrar of voters for Solano County, told us in 2020. "That's when we have to start looking at postmarks on the ballot, or date that the voter signed the envelope, to determine if we can count the ballot or not."

And if you haven't mailed your envelope yet, it's an easy fix: Just clearly cross out the incorrect date on the envelope and write in the correct one above it.

'What if I use assistive technology to complete forms?'

Getting physical assistance with filling out your ballot from someone you trust is always fine, whether you're voting at home or at a voting site. You just need to make sure your signature is your own, and matches the one you're registered to vote with.

Disabled voters can also choose to use the Remote Accessible Vote-by-Mail system to vote privately and independently at home, using their usual assistive device on their home computer to fill out the ballot on their screen and then print and mail it.

Every voting location in California is also equipped with an accessible voting unit. Here, voters who are sight-impaired or have a disability that limits their dexterity will be able to use the assistive device of their choice that allows them to vote privately and independently.

'How can I make sure my mail-in ballot gets there on time?'

Remember, one big reason that ballots get disqualified in elections is because voters mail them too late: either too late on Election Day itself (after U.S. Postal Service mailboxes have already been collected), or after Election Day.

In order to be counted in this recall election, your ballot must be postmarked on Election Day (Sept. 14) at the latest. Your ballot has seven days to reach your county elections office.

So in this recall election, it's as crucial as ever to make sure you have a plan for voting on time — and if you're not voting in person, that means making sure you get your ballot into a mailbox or into a secure voting drop box, at a polling location or your county elections office, by the time polls close on Sept. 14.

A few other common ballot mistakes to watch out for ...

Make sure you're filling out and signing the ballot and envelope with your name on it: It's common to see partners or roommates accidentally mix up their ballots. So make sure you're signing the document that bears your name.

Make sure you use a black or blue pen: It reads better, and it doesn't slow workers down when they have to check to see what voter intent was. (Don't use a felt tip or a Sharpie that bleeds through the paper and marks other pages on your ballot.)

Don't mail an empty envelope: It does happen. Keeping your envelope and your ballot together in your home might be a helpful way of avoiding this problem. And of course, when you're ready to mail your ballot, make sure it's actually inside the envelope before you seal it.

Don't bother with a stamp: Your ballot envelope is postage paid. You don't need it.