Helping voters get the right primary election ballot in California

Primaries are hard to explain.

But writing instructions for voters gets even harder when some parties allow some voters to participate in their Presidential Primary.

That’s the case in California, where the 1 in 4 voters who are registered without a party preference are allowed to vote in the Democratic, American Independent, or Libertarian party primaries, but not in the Republican, Green, or Peace & Freedom party primaries.

Add in the challenge of getting the right ballot to the many vote-by-mail voters, where the question is asked on a postcard form without the support of a friendly poll worker.

It’s confusing enough that hundreds of voters in Sacramento called the county elections office to ask why the Republican Party was left off the list of options. The issue even made the news.

Clearly, plain language, accurate instructions, and usable forms are needed.

Here’s how Shasta, Santa Cruz, and Inyo counties created instructions and forms to make sure voters know their options and can communicate their choices to the elections office clearly.

Read the text on the showcase materials

A postcard, modeled on the Inyo County infographic, in the style of the voter guides.
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Card with Do you want to vote for president on June 7, 2016 and instructions.
This infographic version, created by Inyo County, was used as a model for the postcards.
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Text is in the box below
The Shasta County form for voters lets them write in the party they want.
It also includes a clear box for their signature.
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Text is in the box below
The Santa Cruz form for voters to return uses checkboxes for the parties, with a clear line for the signature.
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Text is in the box below
The Shasta County instructions cover all three options, including not voting in a Presidential primary.
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Text is in the box below
The Santa Cruz party instructions have to fit both English and Spanish, but still make the options clear.
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For more information:

Field Guide 2: Writing instructions voters understand

Field Guide 10: Creating forms that help voters take action

Project: How voters get information (voter guides in California)

Project: Communicating with voters: election websites and voter education

The text of the instructions and forms


Do you want to vote for President on June 7, 2016?

All voters can vote in a primary election. Voting for President depends on the party you are registered with.

  • (Column 1)  If you are registered with a political party: You can vote for a candidate running for President in that party.
  • (Column 2) If you registered with no party preference, you can vote in the Presidential primary for the following parties: Democratic American Independent Libertarian. You can select the party ballot at your polling place. If you vote by mail, you were sent a postcard to select a party ballot.
  • (Column 3) If you registered with no party preference and want to vote in the Presidential primary for one of the following political parties: Republican Green Peace & Freedom You must re-register to vote with that party by May 23, 2016.

Shasta County

Do you want to vote for President on June 7, 2016?

You received this postcard because you vote by mail and you are not registered with a qualified political party and are considered a No Party Preference voter.

As a No Party Preference voter, you have three options:

  • Do nothing. You will receive a ballot that does not include candidates for President.
  • To vote for an American Independent, Democratic, or Libertarian Presidential candidate, complete the information on the other side and return this postcard by April 8, 2016.
  • To vote for a Green, Peace & Freedom, or Republican Presidential candidate, you must re-register  by May 23, 2016.

(This is followed by contact information for online registration, the Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters, and the California Secretary of State.)

The form

If your residential address is different from above, you must re-register to vote.

[checkbox] When I registered to vote, I did not state a preference for a qualified political party. For the Presidential Primary Election on June 7, 2016 only, I request a vote-by-mail ballot for the [fill in the blank] party.

(Please write one on the line: American Independent, Democratic, or Libertarian)

Voter, sign here.

Santa Cruz County

Do you want to vote for President on June 7, 2016?
You must select one of the three political parties that have allowed you to vote in their presidential primary: American Independent, Democratic, or Libertarian.
Use this postcard to make your selection and be sure to return it no later than April 8, 2016. Otherwise you will be mailed a ballot without the office of President.
If you want to participate in the Presidential Primary for the Green, Peace & Freedom or Republican parties, you must be registered to vote with that party.
Deadline to register is May 20, 2016. Register to vote online at

The form:

I am not registered with a qualified political party. However for this primary election only, I request a vote-by-mail ballot for the party below.

  • Democratic
  • American Independent
  • Libertarian

(Voter signature)