Election 2020

How to vote by mail in Philadelphia — and make sure your ballot counts

Can the USPS handle the onslaught? Here’s everything you need to know. 

mailinballotdropbox-kimpaynter-crop
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
maxmarin-byline

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.


Updated Sept. 17

Mail-in voting is under siege.

For months, President Donald Trump has been railing without evidence about massive fraud ahead of the Nov. 3 election. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic congressional lawmakers are worrying about the cash-strapped and understaffed U.S. Postal Service, which has been falling behind on mail deliveries in Philly and elsewhere.

Just over half of Pennsylvanians who voted in the June primary cast their ballots by mail. The commonwealth has close to 8.7 million registered voters, including 1.1 million in Philly. With turnout expected to double for the general election, that could mean several million paper ballots in play.

Is the USPS equipped to handle this unprecedented number? Can voters trust their ballots will be received and counted? And are there ways to vote early but not depend on mail?

This is Pennsylvania’s first year with widespread mail-in voting, but it’s not a foreign concept: 30 other states already offer an advance ballot alternative. The practice has long been stable and reliable. However, amid the pandemic and general anxiety ahead of the 2020 presidential standoff, even voters who trust the process may have some concerns.

Here’s a no-nonsense guide answering common questions about the process.

Lea este artículo en español aquí, traducido por Cristina Paulino y editado por Gabriela Rivera para Kensington Voice.

Who can request a mail-in ballot?

Any registered voter in Pennsylvania!

FYI: The registration deadline for the November election is Oct. 19.

How do I apply?

If you have a driver’s license or a state identification card, you can apply online. If not, you’ll need to print out this form and apply via snail mail, or drop it off by hand. (Here’s the application in Spanish.)

Note: Some advocacy groups have been sending out applications to registered voters without prompting, ostensibly in an effort to boost turnout and raise awareness. If this happens, your best bet is to throw it out — these orgs may not have the latest information or official design.

Trust the application on the Pa. Department of State website or one mailed to or given to you directly by an election official.

What’s the difference between this and an absentee ballot?

There’s no physical difference between mail-in and absentee ballots in Pennsylvania.

But you don’t need a reason to use a mail-in ballot. No explanation required! Unless you miss the deadline or haven’t established Pennsylvania residency, you’ll be approved no problem.

Absentee ballots are traditionally allotted to people who won’t be home during an election — like members of the military, expatriates, college students, and people who are incarcerated but haven’t been convicted of a felony.

What’s the deadline to apply?

Deadlines is the proper word here: There are two.

You have until 5 p.m. on Oct. 27 to get your application to your county election office, either hand-delivered or by mail. Don’t confuse this with the submission deadline for actual ballots themselves. Filled out ballots need to be received by the county election office by 8 p.m. when polls close on election night.

That doesn’t mean you can drop it in the mail that morning. For both the application and the actual ballot submission, it’s gotta be at the office by deadline — not postmarked. In Philadelphia alone, more than 14,600 ballots for the June primary arrived after the hard deadline, with tens of thousands more late ballots statewide.

Officials and politicians in Philadelphia are urging voters to postmark their ballots at least two weeks before the election.

When will I get my ballot in the mail?

On Sept. 17, the Pa. Supreme Court ordered the removal of Green Party presidential candidates from the ballot, freeing county election boards to move forward with printing and mailing ballots to voters. Philadelphia voters who already applied for theirs can expect to receive ballots within a week to 10 days of the court decision, according to Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio.

mailinballot-envelope
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Who’s gonna count my mail-in ballot?

Your county election officials. In Philadelphia, that’s the City Commissioners, a bipartisan panel of three people elected to run the city’s elections and handle voter registration.

Every election, the commissioners tabulate ballots at their office on Delaware Avenue (aka. Columbus Boulevard) near Spring Garden. To offer some transparency for the first year with mail-in ballots, the office had a livestream of their tabulation center where they counted mail-in ballots after the June primary.

Be real: Am I safer voting in person or by mail?

The pandemic has also placed enormous strain on in-person voting. Poll workers are also asking that voters follow the mail-in process to reduce congestion. (“Every in-person vote increases chance of COVID transmission at polling places,” tweeted Ryan Godfrey, an inspector of elections in West Philly.)

Bipartisan election officials are still encouraging the use of mail-in ballots for the November election. At the same time, lawmakers have acknowledged the ongoing delivery issues in Philadelphia and that they may be a deterrent for some to vote by mail.

Polling places in Philadelphia saw a dramatic reduction for the June primary, but officials are hoping to open four times as many this November. If you plan to vote in person, see this map of currently approved polling locations — which we’ll update weekly as new locations are identified. Note: the final list won’t be confirmed until 20 days before the election.

Are there ways to vote early but not go through the mail?

If you’re concerned about the USPS system, there will be other options to give you peace of mind.

Philadelphia’s election board received a $10 million cash infusion to help make mail-in voting easier — funding satellite offices for early voting using mail ballots, purchasing ballot sorting machines to process votes more efficiently, and giving poll workers a hazard pay bump.

The satellite offices, announced by City Commissioners Chair Lisa Deeley on Sept. 18, will essentially be one-stop voting shops. You’ll be able to register, request a mail ballot, filling out, seal it in the security envelopes and return it all in one visit. Voters who already requested mail ballots can also use these satellite offices to drop off their sealed ballots.

Also expected are a set of 15 or so mailbox-style drop off spots, like the ones used in the June primary. These would be monitored by video surveillance and emptied regularly by election officials.

A mail-ballot application sent to a Philadelphia voter by a D.C.-based nonprofit. Best to only use an application that comes directly from the Pa. or Philly election offices.

A mail-ballot application sent to a Philadelphia voter by a D.C.-based nonprofit. Best to only use an application that comes directly from the Pa. or Philly election offices.

How will I know my vote has been counted?

If you submit a mail-in ballot and provide an email address, you’ll receive a confirmation email noting that your ballot has been received. If you don’t receive confirmation, contact the PA Department of State via email (ra-voterreg@pa.gov) or by calling 1-877-VOTESPA. You can also check the status of your ballot the Pa. Department of State’s tracking website.

Caution: If the June primary was any indication, expect delays. It took weeks to count all the votes in Philadelphia, and even more voters are expected to turn out to vote in the general. In short, election night isn’t going to be over on election night.

I voted by mail in the primary and now my ballot status says “pending.” What gives?

You might be confused if you check the status of your ballot online and see a “pending” status. That isn’t referring to your primary election ballot. The Pa. Department of State reset its tracking system ahead of the general election, and “pending” means you already applied for a mail-in ballot and there’s no need to apply again. Your ballot will be mailed to the address listed on your voter registration.

I don’t trust the mail-in process. Can I still go to my polling place?

Of course.

If you feel more confident about an in-person vote, the polls will be open on their normal hours, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day. Here are the polling places that have been approved so far. The final list won’t be confirmed until 20 days before the election, but you can check back for weekly updates.

It’s Election Day and I had issues with my mail-in ballot. What should I do?

Maybe you didn’t receive your mail-in ballot after you applied, or you mailed it in but never got a confirmation of receipt. It’s Election Day. Now what?

Go to your regular polling place. Tell them you had a problem with mail-in voting and they’ll give you a provisional ballot (i.e. a hand-counted, same-day paper ballot) to fill out. No, this doesn’t mean your vote will be counted twice. Your provisional ballot will be discarded if your mail-in ballot was successfully tallied.

Granted, if you’re at this stage, you might be even more stressed about whether your vote gets counted. Don’t fret: you’ll get a provisional ballot number, which you should be able to check the status of your ballot online after the election through the Department of State.

There’s also another new option for the general election as well: If you still have your mail ballot on Election Day, you can surrender the ballot (with the envelope!) at your polling place and vote on the machine instead.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

Thanks for reading another Billy Penn story

Find everything you need to know about Philly, every day — in clear, direct language, like a good friend might say.

No clickbait, no cliffhangers: the Billy Penn morning newsletter.

Thanks for supporting Billy Penn!

Test your local knowledge — join us for the next Philly Quizzo virtual event, or take the quiz online.

Lock in your support

Reader support powers our local pandemic reporting. A monthly membership helps lock it in.

Can we count on you as a Billy Penn sustainer?