Student Voting Guide | California

This student voting guide explains the laws for the state of California. If you wish to vote from your school address, check the student voting guide for the state where you attend school. If you want to cast an absentee ballot in your home state, check the student voting guide for that state.

August 15, 2014

This student voting guide explains the laws for the state of California. If you wish to vote from your school address, check the student voting guide for the state where you attend school. If you want to cast an absentee ballot in your home state, check the student voting guide for that state.

The Brennan Center is committed to giving students as much information as possible to help you exercise your constitutional right to vote. More than ever in recent history, changes to voting laws are being implemented in ways that can affect your ability to make your vote count. In addition to the content you will find in this Student Voting Guide, we continue to track passed and pending voting law changes here. While we are working to give you up-to-date information, we urge you to be proactive! In order to ensure you have all the information you need before casting your vote, you should also check with your state and local election officials for information about additional requirements or regulations.

This voting guide was last updated August 15, 2014.


You can register to vote if you are a resident of California, a citizen of the United States, and at least 18 at the time of the election.[1] If you have been convicted of a felony, it may impact your ability to vote. If you think you might be affected, you should contact local election officials.

Voters who have a California driver’s license or state identification card can register online at the Secretary of State’s website. Voter registration forms can also be mailed or completed in person.

The registration deadline in California is 11:59pm on the fifteenth day before Election Day. The last day to register for the 2014 general election is 11:59pm October 20.[2] Mailed registration forms must be postmarked by that date, and online registration and in person registration must also occur on or before October 20.[3]

If you become a resident of California after this deadline but before the election occurs, you can still register to vote between the fourteenth and seventh days prior to the election. Such registration must occur at your local county election office, and when you actually vote, you will need to cast your “new resident’s ballot” in that same office.[4]

You must re–register to vote when you move to a new permanent address, change your name, or change your political party choice.[5]


At School. Students can establish residency in California if they have a present intention to remain at their California school address for the time being, and they intend to make it their principal home.[6] Any other interpretation of the residency laws is unconstitutional.[7]

California law provides for voter registration services on college campuses.[8] California courts and the Attorney General have also made clear that if you move residences each school year and you cannot establish a new voting residency in time to register to vote (you do not have housing yet, for instance), you can vote at your previous school–year address.[9] If your parents are from California, students may choose between their school addresses and their parents’ homes when deciding where to register to vote.[10]

At Home. Students who lived in California before moving elsewhere to attend school, and who wish to establish or keep their California voting residency (i.e., at their parents’ address), should be able to do so unless they have already registered to vote in another state.

California allows students to keep their voting residency even if they move away to attend school,[11] and the only way you might lose this residency is by establishing residency in a new state.[12] While registering to vote in another state is not automatically considered abandonment of residency in California, some judges or officials might view it as such. If you have established voting residency in another state and are moving back to California with the intent to reside there, you will have to follow the normal registration procedures to re-register in California.[13]

Challenges to Residency. As a student, you have the right to cast a ballot as a resident of California regardless of whether you pay in-state or out-of-state tuition. Any challenge made solely on the basis of your student or tuition status is invalid. If your county elections official refuses to register you on the basis of your residency, you can challenge the refusal in court.[14] If another voter thinks that you are not a resident, he or she can also file an action in court to cancel your registration.[15]

At the polls, your eligibility to vote based on residency can only be challenged by a member of the precinct board—i.e., an official poll-worker.[16] You will then be asked under oath whether you are a resident. If you answer “yes,” without qualifying your answer, you can vote regularly.[17] If you refuse to answer the question, then you will not be allowed to vote.[18]


California requires photo identification (“ID”) for those first-time voters who register by mail and whose California driver’s license or non-driver’s ID number, or the last four digits of whose Social Security number, cannot be verified by the state.[19] If you fall into this category, you will have to include a copy of your ID with your registration, show ID when you vote in person, or submit a copy of your ID with your vote–by–mail ballot (also known as an absentee ballot).

A wide range of ID is accepted, and the ID requirements must be read in the way that is most likely to “permit voters and new registrants to vote.”[20] Acceptable ID includes any current and valid photo ID, or any of the following documents with your name and address, if they are dated within the past year: utility bill; bank statement; government check; government paycheck; or any other document issued by the government, including a sample ballot, other official communication for the election in question, or your voter notification card. In addition, students may present a student photo ID, a student housing bill, or a cell phone bill, also dated within the last year.[21]

If, for any reason, you are registered to vote but your identity or qualifications cannot be established at the polling place, you can vote using a provisional ballot. The provisional ballot is valid so long as your signature on the ballot matches your signature on record.[22]

Absentee Voting/Early Voting

An absentee (or vote-by-mail) ballot is available online here.

California is a no–fault vote–by–mail state, meaning that you can choose to vote absentee without giving a reason. All voters, including first-time voters, can vote by mail.[23] Your application for a vote–by–mail ballot must be received by the county elections official before the seventh day prior to the election.[24] Some counties will allow you to submit an application online—check the website for your county. You can also apply for permanent vote by mail status.[25] Your ballot must be received by the elections official or the precinct board by the close of polls on Election Day.[26] California voters who wish to vote early can do so by voting absentee. In addition, some counties offer early voting in-person, however the locations and hours vary by county. You should check with your county elections office for the exact dates, times, and locations for early voting.

Last updated August 15, 2014

[1] Cal. Const. Art. II § 2; Cal Elec. Code § 2000.

[3] Cal. Elec. Code § 2102(a).

[4] Cal. Elec. Code § 3400.

[5] Cal. Elec. Code § 2115 (change of name); § 2118-20 (change of address); § 2152 (change of party).

[6] Cal. Elec. Code § 2021.

[7] See Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 330 (1972)

[8] Cal. Elec. Code § 2146.

[9] See, e.g., Walters v. Weed, 45 Cal. 3d 1, 12 (1988); 53 Cal. Ops. Atty. Gen. 242, 1970 Cal. AG LEXIS 63 (Aug. 12, 1970) (“Assuming…a student did not intend to make his parents' home his legal residence or domicile when he went to his parents' home for the summer, such student would be eligible to vote in the precinct of his previous residence.”).

[10] Cal. Elec. Code § 2027.

[11] Cal. Elec. Code § 2025.

[12] Cal. Elec. Code § 2023 (“If a person moves to another state as a place of permanent residence, with the intention of remaining there for an indefinite time, he or she loses his or her domicile in this state, notwithstanding that he or she intends to return at some future time.”).

[13] Cal. Elec. Code § 2023.

[14] Cal. Elec. Code § 2142(a)-(b)  (“Action to compel registration upon refusal.”).

[15] Cal. Elec. Code § 2213. 

[16] Cal. Elec. Code § 14240.

[17] Cal. Elec. Code § 14244.

[18] Cal. Elec. Code § 14249.

[19] 42 U.S.C. §15483 (establishing that as a matter of federal law you must provide identity documents at least once either at registration or when you vote for the first time); Cal. Elec. Code § 2124 (establishing that the Secretary of State decides what ID counts by regulation); Cal. Code Regs. tit. 2, § 20107 (setting out the types of IDs acceptable).

[20] Cal. Code Regs. tit. 2, § 20107(b).

[21] Cal. Code Regs. tit. 2, § 20107(d)(1)–(2).

[22] Cal. Elec. Code § 14310(c)(1).

[23] Cal. Elec. Code § 3003.

[24] Cal. Elec. Code § 3001.

[25] Cal. Elec. Code § 3200.

[26] Cal. Elec. Code § 3020.