Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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It’s easier than ever for Pennsylvanians to apply to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 general election. Once your application is approved, it’s time for the next obvious question: When will my ballot be sent out so I can actually cast my vote?

Philadelphia resident Susan Ciccantelli, 67, says the sooner the better. She worries about delays plaguing the U.S. Postal Service, and plans to deliver her ballot in person — or at one of the new dropbox locations that she used for the primary.

“It’s as good as voting in the booth — except it’s better,” Ciccantelli said. “It’s totally COVID safe.”

Unfortunately, it could be a month or longer before she receives her ballot.

What’s the holdup? Two petitions are pending in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court seeking to bump candidates off the ballot. It’s a routine process that happens almost every election, but this year it threatens to extend the already anxious waiting period.

The smaller petition aims to disqualify an independent running in a Philly-area Pa. House race. The other seeks to remove the entire slate of Green Party candidates from running for U.S. president and other statewide offices. That one could turn into a lengthier dispute.

Ballots are printed and distributed at the county level.

Election officials and attorneys in the petition cases expect both matters to be resolved by mid-September. Once the candidates are finalized, the Philadelphia City Commissioners office said, it will take 5-7 days to print and mail to voters.

That could mean late September before Philadelphians receive the first ballots.

“It could be earlier depending on what the court cases look like,” Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio told Billy Penn.

The Pa. Department of State, however, says counties shouldn’t let the cases stop them from printing their ballots.

“We are encouraging the counties to move forward with having their ballots printed and not wait for a final court resolution,” said Wanda Murren, the department’s director of communications.

Best bet: Apply now to receive ballot in first round

Both the Pa. Department of State and the Philadelphia City Commissioners say they’re monitoring the developments at the U.S. Postal Service to determine how delays could impact mail-in voting for millions of expected voters statewide.

Election officials’ advice: apply for your ballots online as soon as possible. Here’s our FAQ-style explainer about that process.

Those who do “are in the first batch mailed and will have the most time to return their ballot,” said Custodio.

By mid-September, City Commissioners plan to have 17 satellite offices up and running where voters can not only drop off their mail-in ballots to election officials in person, but also apply for and fill out a ballot on the spot. The mail-box style ballot drop boxes used in the primary are the subject a lawsuit from the Trump campaign, and it remains unclear whether they will be deployed again ahead of the November election.

In effect, this would create a version of early voting that would circumvent many concerns with the postal service. Operating hours and other details are not yet available.

Bipartisan voting experts have repeatedly agreed voting by mail is safe and largely fraud-proof.

Green Party dispute could be the main holdup

Election lawyer Adam Bonin, who represents Democratic officials in Philadelphia, expects his petition to disqualify independent candidate Audrey McLain won’t take long to resolve. McLain, who describes herself as a political scholar, is currently on the ballot challenging Democratic state Rep. Mary-Louise Isaacson.

Bonin’s petition alleges McLain didn’t meet the requirement of signatures from voters to appear on the ballot. Two entire pages of names of inadmissible, he contends. McLain could not be reached for comment.

Bonin does understand the case presents a potential logjam for ballot distribution.

“Ballot printing matters,” Bonin said. “It’s the candidate’s fault for not doing her job. If this were something she were serious about, she’d present enough valid signatures to make sure she could qualify on the ballot.”

The Green Party of Pennsylvania’s case is more complicated. Back in March, the minor political party beseeched the state to eliminate signature gathering and other ballot access requirements due to the pandemic. The request was denied.

On the Aug. 3 deadline, the Green Party submitted paperwork with about 8,550 signatures for its nominees for president and three statewide offices. Democrats in Pennsylvania immediately filed an objection in Commonwealth Court, alleging numerous disqualifying signatures and other defects.

Clifford Levine, a Pittsburgh-based attorney who filed the objection, would not say how soon it might take for the case to move forward. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 25.

“I think the Commonwealth Court will think about how we can get this done within a week or ten days” from that date,” Levine said.

The issue is no quibble for Democrats. Many argue votes for third-party and independent candidates could otherwise swing the high-stakes election, as in 2016 when Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein won enough votes to hypothetically alter the outcome key swing states like Pennsylvania. (Pundits say the vote breakdown math is more complicated than that.)

The Green Party will also have the opportunity to appeal the court’s ruling, which could mean further delays.

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...