This post was updated on Sept. 15 to add new information about the locations of secured ballot drop boxes and accessible voting centers.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it won’t be safe for all voters to physically go to the polls this year, wait in line, and fill out their ballot next to a stranger. And recent news of postal service cutbacks by the Trump administration has raised questions about the security of voting by mail. Other obstacles may well crop up between now and November.

Given all the challenges facing voters this year, we decided to look into how state and local officials are ensuring a smooth election on November 3. We’ll be updating this page as we learn more, but here’s what you need to know right now.

Register to vote

The deadline to register to vote in the November 3 election is October 19. If you voted in a prior year, you can check to see if you’re still registered here

It’s easy to register for the first time or to renew your status. Go to this website to fill out the forms. It takes just a few minutes.

What you’ll be voting for in Oakland

Oakland is divided into seven districts that you can see on the map below. You can also enter your address here to look up your district.

Each district votes for its own City Council and Oakland Unified School District school board representative. This year, every odd-numbered district (1, 3, 5, and 7) will vote for their representatives. In 2022, the even-numbered districts will vote. 

Along with your district reps, you’ll have a chance to vote for two citywide positions: the “at-large” councilmember who represents the whole city, and the city attorney who provides legal advice to city officials and represents Oakland in legal matters like lawsuits or negotiations.

You’ll also have a chance to weigh in on a number of new local laws, known as ballot measures. This year’s proposals include:

  • Giving the Oakland Police Commission more independence and authority
  • Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for OUSD school board directors
  • Removing the $1,000 limit on fines for ordinance violations
  • Approving $735 million in school construction bonds for Oakland Unified School District

Every registered voter gets a mail-in ballot

Because of the pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in May requiring county elections officials to send all registered voters a mail-in ballot for the November 3 election. 

A mail-in ballot includes the exact same set of questions and candidates you would vote on if you went to the voting booth in person. If you’re registered to vote, you should receive a mail-in ballot in your mailbox sometime after October 5. This will give you up to 29 days to study up on the candidates and measures, fill out your ballot, and drop it in a mailbox or designated ballot drop box (which you can learn more about below).

Every ballot will come with pre-paid postage, so you don’t have to worry about buying stamps to send it.

Worried about mailing your ballot through USPS?

Recent news that the Trump administration has cut back on vital operations within the United States Postal Service (USPS), false statements by President Trump about mail-in voting, and Trump’s own statement that he sought postal service budget cuts to block mail-in voting are legitimate reasons to worry about the security of voting by mail.

Here’s some good news: California voters have less to worry about regarding problems with the USPS. A state bill approved earlier this year requires elections officials to accept a greater number of ballots that might get delayed in post offices.

In previous elections, the registrar of voters—basically, the person who oversees elections for each county—didn’t count ballots that arrived four or more days after Election Day. Under the new law, any ballot postmarked on or before November 3 that arrives up to 17 days after the election must be counted.

If you’re still worried about your ballot, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has created a free tracking tool that can send you automatic alerts when your county’s registrar of voters has sent you your ballot, and when the registrar has received your ballot after you’ve filled it out and mailed it back. The tool also promises to send an update when your ballot has actually been counted.

Skip USPS with ballot drop boxes

If you absolutely don’t want to send your ballot through the postal service, you can drop it in a secured ballot drop box, where it will then be taken straight to the county registrar’s office instead of traveling by mail. 

Here’s a map of the current and planned ballot drop box locations in Alameda County.

In prior elections, Alameda County had 25 drop boxes, including four in Oakland. This year, the number of ballot drop boxes will be expanded across the entire county thanks to a recently passed law, Senate Bill 423. Alameda County is now required to have one drop box for every 15,000 registered voters, which translates into 66 total boxes this year. 

The county is required to set up these drop boxes 28 days before the election. According to the registrar of voters, there will be 12 new ballot drop boxes in Oakland.

Oakland is getting 12 additional ballot drop boxes this year. Credit: Alameda County Registrar of Voters

Voting in person

There will be in-person early voting and voting on Election Day this year, but you won’t be able to go to a neighborhood polling place like in previous years. Instead, the registrar of voters is setting up “accessible voting locations,” which will be larger than precincts to allow for social distancing.

Early voting starts on October 5. Anyone can vote in person after that at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters’ office at the René C. Davidson Courthouse at 1225 Fallon Street, Room G-1.

Alameda County’s accessible voting locations will open starting October 31 instead of just on Election Day. Oakland is required under state law to have 26 accessible voting locations. So far, there are 23 locations confirmed. You can view the locations of these voting centers on a map here.

The Secretary of State has provided some safety guidelines for counties to follow:

  • Voting precincts will be designed so that voters and poll workers can maintain a distance of six feet at all times
  • Visual cues like floor markings and signs will orient voters and help them maintain distance if they have to wait in line
  • Where distancing isn’t possible, plexiglass barriers will be set up
  • Counties are required to offer voters and poll workers free personal protective equipment, or PPE, including face masks and hand sanitizer
Elections officials say the safest way to vote is by mail, but you can still vote early and in-person at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office starting Oct. 5. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

What if you don’t register to vote on time?

If you miss the October 19 deadline to register, you can still conditionally register to vote at any time. It just means that county election officials will verify your eligibility later, while they’re also counting ballots. 

Vote in person by going to an early voting center anytime after October 5, or to your polling place on Election Day, and filling out a conditional voter registration form and casting a provisional ballot.

Have more questions about voting this year? Send them in!

If you have other questions about how voting will work this year, we’d love to hear from you. We will update this post as we get new information. 

You can also check out the California Official Voter Information Guide anytime.

Correction: the original version of this story incorrectly stated that voters will receive their mail-in ballots on October 6. Election officials will mail out ballots to voters on October 5 and they will arrive sometime after that.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.