How to Vote by Mail in California: 3 Rules to Make Your Ballot Count

Many Californians will be voting by mail this year. Here's how to make sure your ballot is added to the Election Day total.

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This year, millions of Americans will vote by mail for the first time. That includes many California voters.

NBC Bay Area wants to make sure a simple mistake doesn't leave your ballot uncounted. We invite you to bookmark this article in your favorite web browser, so you can review it when you're ready to make your election choices.

Rule #1: Know Your Ballot

The rules and style of ballots vary by county, with every ballot tailored to the city and district of each voter. For example, if you live in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood, your ballot may be slightly different than a voter just a few miles away in Alum Rock. When you receive your ballot, make sure it's correct and that all the races and questions apply to you.

The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters provided NBC Bay Area with an early preview of its November 2020 sample ballot:

Courtesy: Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters

There are some important basics that will apply to all ballots in California. Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is this: read and follow the directions carefully.

Rule #2: Choose Your Pen

After you open your ballot, find the correct pen to fill it out. Election officials told us voters should use a blue or black ink pen. No pencils, no crayons, no markers.

Don't like the choices for a given race? California allows you to write in a qualified candidate who received sufficient votes in their race's primary election. But don't randomly mark up your ballot. Again, follow the directions.

If you make a mistake, don't worry. You can request a replacement ballot by phone. But that might take time to process, so consider working on your ballot early.

Rule #3: Sign, Seal, and Deliver

Signing your ballot is mandatory. The Santa Clara County Registrar says:

“Your signature must match the signature on your voter registration card... If your signature is missing or does not match your voter registration card, your ballot cannot be counted.”

What about sending your ballot? There's been a lot of discussion surrounding the U.S. Postal Service and mail delays. Here's the thing: you don't have to mail in your ballot.

You can drop your ballot off in person at your county elections office. (We've shared a list below.) Look for other drop boxes at places like city halls, libraries, and community centers. Your county registrar of voters likely provided a list with your ballot.

If you can't drop off your ballot yourself and must mail yours in, consider sending it early, to ensure it arrives in time. Again, the Santa Clara County Register says:

“Your voted ballot must be received by the Registrar of Voters by 8 p.m. on Election Day OR must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received within ​17 days of the election.”

No matter where you live, your mail in ballot should arrive with instructions. We encourage you to read the directions -- to make sure your vote is counted.

If you have questions, or if you need a replacement ballot, here's how to contact your county registrar of voters:

RELATED: Plan Your Vote interactive map via NBC News

EDITOR'S NOTE (Monday, Sep. 1, 11:00 p.m.): This story was updated to correct a line stating there would be no in-person voting in California.

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