Ballot dropbox outside Philadelphia City Hall

NOTE: The article below was relevant for the June 2020 primary. For info about drop-off spots for the November general election, visit this link.

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A historic number of Pennsylvanians are lining up to vote by mail in the 2020 primary, and for Philadelphians, it’s now even easier to do. Instead of going to the post office, you can place the sealed envelope with your selections into a special ballot-only dropbox.

The Philadelphia City Commissioners installed a red-white-and-blue emblazoned postal box outside City Hall next to the Octavius Catto statue, and a second 24-hour box outside the Board of Elections Office at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden.

When voters drop completed ballots in the repurposed USPS box, they’ll be picked directly by the commissioners.

“We have the only keys and our staff will be checking it,” said Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio. “It is bolted to the sidewalk.”

You can drop in your ballot any time until the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Election officials are also working with City Council to put up similar boxes in easy-access locations across Philly, hoping to install one in each of the 10 councilmanic districts.

Other counties are also adding drop-off locations for mail-in ballots. In suburban Montgomery County, voters can now drop off their completed ballots in five collection boxes, which officials have promised are secure.

This is the first election in Pa. where you don’t need any excuse to vote by mail. In prior elections, the option was only available to those who faced hardship getting to the polls or met other “absentee ballot” qualifications.

The pandemic has made remote voting even more appealing. Officials from Gov. Wolf on down have been urging people to take advantage of mail-in as the “safe” option, a way to avoid crowded polling places on June 2.

All that has created unprecedented demand.

Testifying remotely to City Council on Tuesday morning, City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said 206,276 voters in Philly have filed for mail-in ballots. That’s 30 times more than the office handled four years ago. The most they ever saw in past presidential races was around 16,000 ballots.

The distribution of the applications is uneven citywide, too. Droves applied for ballots in the voter-rich areas of Center City and the upper Northwest, while parts of North, West and Lower Northeast Philadelphia saw the lowest number of requested ballots.

Commissioners said the mail-in operation has strained their resources — and they’re bracing for a possibly larger surge in the general election.

“If there is a fall COVID spike, applications for the general election might exceed 400,000 to 500,000,” Deeley told Council, “and we will have to explore ways to process all of them timely.”

Material, shipping and labor costs have skyrocketed at a time when sweeping austerity budget cuts have been made across city agencies. The paper alone for the ballots cost the city $191,000 so far. Custodio said it also requires more manpower to process each of the ballots.

The commissioners also funded pre-paid postage for each of the ballots. Once filled out, you can place the ballot in any mailbox, free of charge. You can opt to receive a confirmation message once your ballot has been received.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...