Voting in Presidential Primary Elections

“A button of the California flag is placed on top of an American flag

 

In 2018, a new law moved California primaries from June to March. The 2020 Presidential Primary Election will be held on March 3.

For the March 3, 2020, Presidential Primary Election, the party preference that voters selected when they last registered to vote determines which presidential primary contest, if any, will appear on their ballot.

Besides voting for presidential candidates to move forward to the November 2020 general election, voters will also vote on other federal and state offices and ballot measures.

Are you prepared for the primary election? You may need to take action to make sure you can vote for your preferred candidate for President. Learn why your party preference matters; how to check, change, or remove your party preference; and more.

Why Party Preference Matters in the March 2020 Presidential Primary Election

For presidential primary elections, the party preference that voters selected when registering to vote determines which presidential primary contest, if any, will appear on their ballot.

Voters who selected a party preference when they registered will receive a ballot with that party’s candidates for President. If there is an election for the party’s county central committee/county council, the party’s governing body in San Francisco, candidates for that contest will also appear on the ballot.

Voters with a party preference cannot vote for candidates running in a different party’s presidential primary or county central committee/county council contest.

Voters who did not select a party preference, or whose preference is for a non-qualified political party in California, will receive a ballot that does not include a contest for President unless they take action. To vote for a presidential candidate in this election, these voters must specifically request a ballot of one of the parties allowing voters with no party preference to vote in its presidential primary*. Learn how to request a party ballot.

Voters with no party preference are not eligible to vote in contests for a political party’s county central committee/county council.

Regardless of party preference, all voters will receive a ballot that includes contests for voter-nominated offices: United States Representative, State Senator, and State Assembly Member; and any nonpartisan offices and ballot measures.

Check your party preference and other registration information using the Voter Registration Status Lookup tool.

To change, add, or remove your party preference, complete a new registration form or the California Secretary of State’s Online Registration Application. For more information, visit Registration Basics.

*A list of parties allowing voters with no party preference to vote in their March 2020 presidential primary will be added to this page in late October 2019.

How Presidential Primary Elections Are Conducted in California

Qualified political parties in California* may hold presidential primaries in one of two ways: a closed presidential primary or a modified-closed presidential primary. Usually, certain parties have a closed presidential primary and others have a modified-closed presidential primary.

Under closed presidential primary rules, only voters who selected a party preference when registering to vote may vote for that party's presidential candidates.

Under modified-closed presidential primary rules, a party may also allow voters who did not select a party preference—known as “No Party Preference” or “NPP” voters—to vote for that party's presidential candidates.

No later than October 21, 2019, the California Secretary of State will publish a list of parties that will allow voters with no party preference to participate in their March 2020 presidential primary; this list will be added to this page.

*The Secretary of State determines which parties are qualified in California and publishes a  list of qualified political parties.

How Primary Elections for State and Federal Offices Other Than President Are Conducted

In California elections, all voters can vote for any candidates running for voter-nominated offices, regardless of the party preference of the voters or the candidates. In the March 2020 Presidential Primary Election, the following voter-nominated offices will appear on the ballot: United States Representative, State Senator, and State Assembly Member.

For each contest for a voter-nominated office, the two candidates with the most votes in the March primary election move on to the November general election—even if both candidates have the same party preference. This process is known as a top two open primary election.

Under top two open primary rules, the primary contest for a voter-nominated office must be held even when there are only two candidates running for an office. If a candidate for a voter-nominated office wins a majority of votes in the primary, that candidate must still run against the runner-up in the general election. In addition, a write-in candidate for a voter-nominated office can run in the general election only by first winning one of the top two places in the primary.

All voters can also vote for any nonpartisan offices and for or against ballot measures that appear on the March 2020 ballot.

Party Preference FAQs

  1. What does party preference mean?
  2. What does party information mean when listed with a candidate’s name on the ballot?
  3. Which political parties are currently qualified in California?
  4. How can I check the party preference I selected when I registered to vote?
  5. How can I change my party preference?
  6. I selected a party preference when I registered to vote. What contests will be on my March 2020 ballot?
  7. I selected a preference for a party that is not qualified in California when I registered to vote. What contests will be on my March 2020 ballot?
  8. I did not select a party preference when I registered to vote. What contests will be on my March 2020 ballot?
  9. Which parties will allow voters with no party preference to vote in their March 2020 presidential primary?
  10. When can voters with no party preference request a party ballot?
  11. I am a voter with no party preference. How can I request a party ballot?
  12. I vote by mail. How can I get a different ballot from the one that I received?
  13. I missed the registration deadline. Can I still change my party preference and vote a ballot that reflects the change?
  14. I vote at the City Hall Voting Center. How will the Department staff member know which ballot to issue?
  15. I vote at a polling place on Election Day. How will the poll worker know which ballot to issue?
  16. What if I have more questions?
  1. What does party preference mean?
    Generally, “party preference” refers to the political party with which a voter is registered.

    When registering to vote, voters may select a preference for a qualified party, a non-qualified party, or no party.

    Registering to vote with a preference for a qualified party allows voters to participate in that party’s presidential primary elections. If there is an election for the party’s county central committee/county council, the party’s governing body in San Francisco, voters can also vote in that contest.

    Voters who indicate no party preference or a preference for a non-qualified party may participate in presidential primaries of parties that allow such voters to vote for their presidential candidates*; however, these voters must specifically request a party ballot. For more information, see Q11.
     
    Voters with no party preference or a preference for a non-qualified party are not eligible to vote in contests for a political party’s county central committee/county council.

    *No later than October 21, 2019, the California Secretary of State will publish a list of parties that will allow voters with no party preference to participate in their March 2020 presidential primary; this list will be added to this page
     
  2. What does party information mean when listed with a candidate’s name on the ballot?
    The party information that appears with a candidate’s name on the ballot has different meanings, depending on the type of office and the type of election.
     
    • For party nominated offices (President and Vice President): the political party printed with the candidates’ names means that the candidates are that party’s choice for the office. This contest will appear on the ballot for the November 2020 general election.
       
    • For voter-nominated state and federal offices other than President: the candidate’s party preference is printed with his or her name on the ballot. “Party preference” means the political party with which the candidate is registered to vote. If a candidate does not have a preference for a qualified political party, “Party Preference: None” is printed.

      The candidate’s party preference does not mean that the candidate is endorsed by that party. Official party endorsements received by the Department of Elections by the submission deadline are printed in the Voter Information Pamphlet (available in early February 2020).
       
    • Judicial, school, and municipal offices are nonpartisan. No party information is printed with the names of candidates for these offices.

  3. Which political parties are currently qualified in California?
    The political parties currently qualified to participate in any primary election or presidential general election in California are: the American Independent Party, the Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the Republican Party.

    The California Secretary of State determines which parties are qualified in California and publishes a  list of qualified political parties.
     
  4. How can I check the party preference I selected when I registered to vote?
    There are several ways to check your party preference:
    • Use the Voter Registration Status Lookup tool
    • Call the Department of Elections at (415) 554-4375, write to SFVote@sfgov.org, or visit the Department’s office, Room 48 in City Hall.
    • Check the back cover of your Voter Information Pamphlet (arriving in early February 2020).

  5. How can I change my party preference?
    To change, add, or remove your party preference, complete a new registration form or the  California Secretary of State's Online Registration Application. For more information, visit Registration Basics. The registration deadline for the March 3, 2020, election is Monday, February 17, 2020.

    Those who missed the registration deadline can visit the City Hall Voting Center in Room 48 through Election Day to take advantage of conditional voter registration and voting. For more information, see Q13.

    If you wish to change your party preference, please do so as soon as possible to help ensure timely receipt of your preferred ballot.
     
  6. I selected a party preference when I registered to vote. What contests will be on my March 2020 ballot?
    If you selected a preference for a qualified party in California you will receive a ballot with that party’s candidates for President.

    Note: Voters with a party preference cannot vote for candidates running in a different party’s presidential primary unless they change their party preference by re-registering to vote.

    If there is an election for the party’s county central committee/county council, the party’s governing body in San Francisco, candidates for that contest will also appear on your ballot.

    Your ballot will also include contests for voter-nominated offices: United States Representative, State Senator, and State Assembly Member; and any nonpartisan offices and ballot measures.

    If you selected a preference for a party that is not qualified in California, you have the same options as voters with no party preference; for more information, see Q8.
     
  7. I selected a preference for a party that is not qualified in California when I registered to vote. What contests will be on my March 2020 ballot?
    You have the same options as voters with no party preference; for more information, see Q8.
     
  8. I did not select a party preference when I registered to vote. What contests will be on my March 2020 ballot?
    Your ballot will include contests for voter-nominated offices: United States Representative, State Senator, and State Assembly Member; and any nonpartisan offices and ballot measures. Your ballot will not include a contest for President unless you specifically request a ballot of one of the parties that allow voters with no party preference to vote in their March 2020 presidential primary. A list of parties that have opened their primaries to voters with no party preference will be added to this page in late October 2019. To learn how to request a party ballot, see Q11.

    Voters with no party preference are not eligible to vote in contests for a political party’s county central committee/ county council, the party’s governing body in San Francisco.
     
  9. Which parties will allow voters with no party preference to vote in their March 2020 presidential primary?
    A list of parties allowing voters with no party preference to participate in their March 2020 presidential primary will be added to this page in late October 2019.

     A list of political parties that allowed voters with no party preference to participate in recent primary elections is available on the California Secretary of State’s website.

  10. When can voters with no party preference request a party ballot?
    Voters with no party preference can request a party ballot as soon as the California Secretary of State announces, no later than October 21, 2019, which political parties chose to open their March 2020 presidential primaries to voters with no party preference. Although voters can request a party ballot through Election Day, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, the Department encourages voters to make their requests as soon as possible to help ensure timely receipt of their preferred ballot.

    A list of parties that have opened their presidential primaries to voters with no party preference will be added to this page in late October 2019.
     
  11. I am a voter with no party preference. How can I request a party ballot?
    As soon as the California Secretary of State announces, no later than October 21, 2019, which political parties have opened their presidential primaries to voters with no party preference, you can request a party ballot in several ways:
    • If you permanently vote by mail, you will receive a postcard with your ballot options in November 2019. Indicate your ballot choice and return the postcard to the Department of Elections by mail (no-postage required), in person at the Department’s office in City Hall, Room 48, by email as a scanned attachment to SFVote@sfgov.org, or by fax to (415) 554-7344
    • Use the Voter Registration Status Lookup tool (ballot selection feature available in October 2019)
    • Call the Department of Elections at (415) 554-4375
    • Visit the Department’s office in City Hall, Room 48
    • Send a request by email as a scanned attachment to SFVote@sfgov.org or by fax to (415) 554-4372, or mail a request to the Department of Elections. The request must include your name, date of birth, signature, home address, and the address to which the ballot should be mailed, if different from your home address
    • Complete and return the application on the back cover of your Voter Information Pamphlet (arriving early February 2020)
    • To request a one-time vote-by-mail ballot for the March 2020 election only, indicate your ballot choice on the online Vote-by-Mail Application (available in October 2019)
    • If you vote in person, request the ballot of your choice from the Department staff member at the City Hall Voting Center or a poll worker at your polling place

  12. I vote by mail. How can I get a different ballot from the one that I received?
    If you are registered with no party preference and received a ballot with no presidential contest, you can request a replacement ballot of one of the parties allowing voters with no party preference to vote in their presidential primary in several ways:
    • Call the Department of Elections at (415) 554-4375
    • Visit the Department’s office in City Hall, Room 48
    • Use the ballot replacement feature (available once ballots are mailed in early February 2020) on the Ballot Status Lookup Tool
    • Send a request by email as a scanned attachment to SFVote@sfgov.org or by fax to (415) 554-4372, or mail a request to the Department of Elections. The request must include your name, date of birth, signature, home address, and the address to which the ballot should be mailed, if different from your home address.

    If you are registered with a party preference but want to vote a ballot for a different party, you must re-register by the registration deadline, Monday, February 17, 2020. Upon receipt of your new registration, the Department will mail a replacement ballot that reflects your new party preference.

    After the registration deadline and through Election Day, March 3, 2020, you can change your party preference and cast a provisional ballot that reflects your new party preference at the City Hall Voting Center in Room 48.
     
  13. I missed the registration deadline. Can I still change my party preference and vote a ballot that reflects the change?
    Yes. You can change your party preference and cast a provisional ballot that reflects your new party preference at the City Hall Voting Center in Room 48 through Election Day, March 3, 2020.

    Note: under state election law, this option, known as Conditional Voter Registration and Voting, is available only at the City Hall Voting Center and not at other Election Day polling places.
     
  14. I vote at the City Hall Voting Center. How will the Department staff member know which ballot to issue?
    The Department’s registration database stores the party preference for each voter in San Francisco. The Department staff member will issue your ballot based on that information. If you have no party preference, you will be offered the choice of a ballot with no presidential contest or a ballot of one of the parties that has opened its presidential primary to voters with no party preference.
     
  15. I vote at a polling place on Election Day. How will the poll worker know which ballot to issue?
    The Roster of Voters will indicate the party preference for each voter in the precinct, and the ballot options for voters with no party preference. The poll worker will issue your ballot based on that information. If you have no party preference, you will be offered the choice of a ballot with no presidential contest or a ballot of one of the parties that has opened its presidential primary to voters with no party preference.
     
  16. What if I have more questions?
    Call the Department of Elections at (415) 554-4375 or write to SFVote@sfgov.org.