One of Philadelphia's mail ballot drop boxes in 2020

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With a presidential election on the line, some Pennsylvania voters have been freaked out by what shows up when they use the state’s online ballot tracker.

Maintained by the Pa. Department of State, the online tracker often presents what appears to be conflicting info. Some people saw”pending” when they’ve already received and returned their ballot. Others knew that their ballot was mailed weeks ago, but it still hadn’t been confirmed as arrived.

One issue is the age of the system. The tracker relies on a database called SURE that was established in 2002. This normally doesn’t affect anything, but this is the first year Pennsylvania has no-excuse mail voting. More than 2.7 million mail ballots had been requested as of Oct. 18, nearly half as many total votes as were cast in the 2016 election.

The novelty and scale of mail voting in Pa. have led to growing pains. The whole system crashed a couple of times due to robust use as Philadelphia and other counties opened satellite election offices.

Even when the online tracker is working, which is most of the time, it can still present perplexing answers.

A lot of the confusion can be chalked up to unclear word choice, with other issues attributable to lag time as county election boards process the unprecedented number of ballots arriving daily.

Have questions about your status? Here’s what we know.

What does it mean if my status says ‘pending’?

After you enter your first and last name, birth date, county of residence and hit enter, the most common thing voters are seeing is a status that says “pending.”

That’s because it shows up throughout several steps along the way, once your application is approved.

“Pending” could mean your ballot is in transit to you via U.S. mail. It could also mean the ballot was delivered to your home address and you have it in hand — since the government has no way of knowing when it gets there.

And “pending” could also mean you sent the ballot back or placed it in a drop box, but it just hasn’t been recorded by your county office yet (see below).

What if my status says ‘cancelled’?

If the tracker shows “cancelled” or you get an email saying that, this likely means the county tried to send you a ballot, but something happened and it was returned to officials as undeliverable.

Did you move to a new address? Change something else about how you get letters? U.S.P.S. will treat the ballot sent out to you like any other piece of mail, and return it to sender.

Why isn’t the tracker showing I sent my ballot in?

Whether you sent it via U.S. Postal service or handed it off at a satellite location or secure drop box, the (double) envelope containing your ballot will be taken to one of your county election board’s main offices.

Once there, election workers will prep the ballots for counting. For some counties, including Philadelphia, this involves running the envelopes through a sorter that adds barcodes to each one.

Only after that’s done is the barcode data uploaded to the state system — where it will show up on the tracker.

When will the status update to show my ballot was received?

The time it takes election boards to process mail ballots after they arrive, and sort or put that barcode on them, varies from county to county. In Philadelphia, some voters who dropped off ballots have seen a turnaround within a week. For others it has taken longer.

If you sent a ballot in weeks ago and it still hasn’t shown up in the system, you can call your local election office or contact the state at 1-877-VOTESPA (1-877-868-3772) or

Does ‘Vote Recorded’ mean my vote has been counted?

Once county officials upload the data that says they have received your ballot, your status in the tracker will change to “vote recorded.”

That does not actually mean your vote has been counted. It just means your ballot has been officially prepped.

There is no follow-up when your vote has been tallied — because U.S. law protects the right to a secret ballot. Once your outer declaration and inner secrecy envelope have been opened, the ballot becomes anonymized.

Nov. 6 is the last day mail ballots can arrive and still be counted. They must have been postmarked by Nov. 3, or have been placed in a secure drop-box by hand.

Even experienced mail voting states had tracker issues

Oregon has used some form of mail voting since 1981, and in November 2000, became the first state to institute vote by mail for all. So feel free to find it either comforting or disconcerting that even Oregon still experiences snafus.

The Pacific Northwest state implemented an online ballot tracker in 2016. Two years later, voters were confounded when they couldn’t access the site. (Turns out the URL was case sensitive.)

New Jersey’s ballot tracker asks voters to input their name, date of birth and a choice of three potential identification numbers — the last four of your social, driver’s license number or voter registration number. If a voter doesn’t use the same ID number they used when initially registering, they get a cryptic error message.

New York City was supposed to create an online tracker in 2016, but didn’t. Its primary was riddled with reports of voters who never received ballot applications or ballots, or got them after the election was over. The city launched a tracker this September and there were still issues. About 100k Brooklyn voters got ballots with the wrong name and address on them.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...