Sorting out the California presidential primary

The rules are confusing. Read this if you want your vote to count.

The March 3 primary in California matters; it could be a big day for the Democratic presidential candidates. But there are a lot of questions that may be answered between now and then – and from my conversations with friends and neighbors, even people who pay a lot of attention to politics are confused about some of the rules.

So let me try to clear things up as best as I can.

Key points:

You can be a decline-to-state voter and still vote in the California Democratic primary – but you won’t get a Democratic ballot automatically. You have to ask for one. If you are a DTS voter, you can’t vote in the Republican primary (which won’t be a contest anyway since Trump will be the only candidate). Only registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary.

If you vote by mail, and you want to vote in the Democratic primary, you will get your ballot the first week in February. But so much could change between the day it arrives and California’s Election Day that the candidate you vote for early might not be in the race any more by March 3, which means your ballot won’t count.

California is not a winner-take-all state for the Democrats. The primary votes are proportioned out in party by Congressional district and in part at-large, and a significant number of the state’s delegates to the nominating convention won’t have to follow the primary results at all.

The Democratic Party rules are available here. I know it’s confusing. Let me try to parse it out.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democratic Party in California allows people who register with No Party Preference (the “independents”) to vote in the presidential primary. That could make a huge difference – NPP is the fasting growing category of voters in the state.

But it’s not automatic. If you are a DTV voter, the SF Department of Elections explains, you have to ask for a “crossover” ballot:

To receive a ballot with the Democratic Party presidential primary contest, you must take one of the following actions:

1) Request a “crossover” party ballot with the Democratic presidential primary contest by calling (415) 554-4375, emailing, faxing a request to (415) 554-7344, visiting, submitting a vote-by-mail application, visiting Room 48 of City Hall, or making the request in person at a voting center or polling place.

2) Reregister to vote with a Democratic Party preference to receive a ballot with the Democratic presidential primary contest and the Democratic County Central Committee Member contest.

Before February 18, 2020, you can change your party preference by reregistering online at or by submitting a paper registration application.

From February 19 through Election Day, March 3, 2020, you can change your party preference by registering conditionally at a voting center or polling place.

Questions? Call (415) 554-4375, visit the Department’s office in Room 48, City Hall, or email

If you vote by mail, you need to request that crossover ballot in advance. Do it now. Otherwise you might not get a ballot with the Democratic candidates in the mail.

And if you vote by mail: The old Bay Guardian joke was “vote early and often,” but in this case, that might not be the best idea.

The New Hampshire primary, which can be both the jump start and the end of presidential campaigns, happens Feb. 11. A candidate who does unexpectedly well in that primary can wind up getting a huge fundraising bump. A candidate who does worse than expected could be in trouble.

I know, it’s silly: One of the most unrepresentative states in the nation has extraordinary influence on the presidential race. But that’s how it is right now.

The South Carolina primary, also critical, is Feb. 29.

So if there’s a candidate you really like, who is on the California primary ballot, and you mail in your ballot Feb. 9, and that candidate tanks in New Hampshire and drops out the next week, or drops out after South Carolina, you just wasted your vote. It won’t count. There is no ranked-choice voting in the presidential primary, no chance to select a second-place or to vote again if your candidate is gone.

That means it might make sense to wait until you know what the California field looks like before you cast your ballot.

If you are campaigning for a candidate in the state, it’s important to understand how the rules work.

For starters, the state will have 494 delegates to the Democratic nominating convention. That’s the largest contingent in the country. If the person who has the most votes in California won all of those delegates, it would be a decisive primary.

But that’s now how the rules work. The Democratic Primary is based on proportional representation. That means if, say, Bernie Sanders gets 35 percent of the vote, he will get (roughly) 35 percent of the delegates.

But even that’s not a sure thing, since 271 of the delegates – 54 percent – are allocated not by the statewide vote but by the vote in each of the state’s 53 Congressional districts. Again, if (for example) Joe Biden wins 40 percent of the vote in the 3rdDistrict, then he would get 40 percent of the delegates from that district (and there are between five and seven delegates per district). So in this scenario, two delegates would go to Biden. The rest would be split up among the other candidates based on how many votes they won – with a big exception.

Anyone who gets less than 15 percent of the vote in any district or statewide gets no delegates at all.

Confused? So am I. But we’re nowhere near the end.

All 46 Democratic members of Congress and both US Senators get to go as conventional delegates, and can vote for anyone they want, no matter what the primary voters say.

Then there are 90 “at-large” delegates whose votes are determined through the same proportional representation as the districts. So if, say, Elizabeth Warren gets 25 percent of the statewide vote, she gets 22 of the at-large delegates.

What all of this means is that the candidates need to be spending money and campaigning all over the state. It means that if San Francisco, say, votes overwhelmingly for one candidate, and the other Bay Area counties vote for another one, the San Francisco vote won’t count for as much.

So the reality is that, unless on candidate is far, far ahead, California won’t be a knock-out state for the Democratic candidates. The most recent polls have Biden and Sanders in a statistical tie statewide, with Warren a few points behind and Buttigieg out of the running (that is, below 15 percent). All of that could change dramatically before the vote, but if the three leading candidates are still in the race, and still at about the same levels, they could wind up splitting the delegates without any decisive “winner.”

So in the general election in November, when California, like all states, is “winner take all,” the electoral votes are critical In the primary, for Democrats, California is a must-not-lose state more than it’s a must-win state.

Make sense?