Those millions of vote-by-mail ballots going out across California starting today might look a little weird. You might even be tempted to call your county's elections office and kvetch:

My choice is between two Democrats? That can't be!

"I expect we'll get some calls accusing us of making mistakes," said Secretary of State Debra Bowen. "But that's OK. I'd rather have people call us so we can explain, rather than just walking away thinking we're idiots."

The new breed of ballot is the result of an initiative California voters passed in June 2010. The measure created the "top two" primary system.

The first hint for many California voters was the unusual June ballot. Rather than being limited to voting for people in the same political party, Californians got to select from a potpourri of candidates from all parties. Only the top two vote-getters in each race advanced to November's general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

Here in the left-leaning Bay Area, the system has produced several Democrat-on-Democrat legislative races.

The top-two system affects neither the presidential election, in which California is part of a national system, nor local elections for city council and county boards of supervisors. Those jobs are nonpartisan.

How to register

This is the first election for which you can complete a voter registration application online. Go to RegisterToVote.ca.gov.

If you don't have a California driver's license or ID card, the site will help you complete an application that you must print, sign and mail. Paper applications also are available at many post offices, public libraries, Department of Motor Vehicles sites and other government offices. The deadline to register to vote for the Nov. 6 election is Monday, Oct. 22.

How to vote by mail

Tuesday, Oct. 30, is the last day county elections offices can receive requests for vote-by-mail ballots. But you can request one in person from your county's election office right up until the day of the election.

To be counted, those ballots must be in an election officer's hands by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Just having them postmarked by Nov. 6 is not enough.

Bowen said if you haven't mailed your ballot by Saturday, Nov. 3, you probably should plan to drop it off in person at your county elections office or at any polling place in your county.

How to vote in person

Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day. You have the right to cast a ballot if you're in line at the polling place before 8 p.m.

You also have the right to cast a provisional ballot if your name is not listed on the voting rolls; to request and receive a new ballot if you believe you made a mistake on the one you have; to ask for assistance in casting your ballot if you're unable to vote without such assistance; and to ask questions about election procedures and observe the elections process at your polling place.

What's at stake

Though California's picks for president and U.S. Senate might seem like foregone conclusions, several hot Golden State races could help decide which party controls the House of Representatives in the next Congress. A slew of tight legislative races could affect state policy for years to come. And 11 ballot measures require Californians to make hard choices on topics such as taxes, the food they eat, the way they punish criminals and the money that influences their politics. If you're registered to vote but don't receive a sample ballot and voter information guide mailed to your home, contact your county elections office or call the secretary of state's hotline, 800-345-8683.

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

Election dates

Today: Early voting begins. Vote-by-mail ballots are sent out.

Monday, Oct. 22: Deadline to register to vote.

Tuesday, Oct. 30: Last day to apply by mail for a vote-by-mail ballot. You can apply for one in person up until Election Day.

Tuesday, Nov. 6: Election Day! Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. All ballots, including those sent by mail, must be received by county elections offices no later than 8 p.m.

Online

Where to go for election information:
Alameda County: www.acgov.org/rov
Contra Costa County: www.cocovote.us
Santa Clara County: www.sccgov.org/sites/rov
Santa Cruz County: www.votescount.com
San Mateo County: www.shapethefuture.org
Solano County: www.solanocounty.com/depts/rov