Election 2021

Mail ballot applications are open for the May primary — and yes, ‘permanent’ mail voters have to re-apply

Wording on Pennsylvania’s forms is confusing. Officials say they’re working to get it changed.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Pennsylvania voters can now apply to vote by mail in the 2021 elections.

Applications were recently sent out to people who signed up to be on the “permanent” mail ballot list last year, prompting a flurry of questions about why they have to apply again, Pa. Department of State spokesperson Wanda Murren said.

Titled “Permanent Mail-in Voter’s Annual Application to Vote by Mail,” the form is “very confusing to people,” Murren acknowledged.

The application process hasn’t changed, she confirmed, but it’s only the commonwealth’s second year with no excuse mail voting, and there are still some kinks to be ironed out. The department is working to clarify some language to make things clearer for applicants, Murren said.

Even if you signed up to receive mail ballots for both elections last year, state law says you need to re-apply. The upshot: If you choose to register for the “annual mail-in and absentee ballot,” you won’t have to do it again until 2022.

Though there are fewer high-profile offices at stake this year, results of the May 18 primary and Nov. 2 general will determine Philadelphia’s next district attorney, among other positions, and could lead to a constitutional amendment changing the way state judges are elected.

Here’s a no-fuss guide to what you need to know.

How do I apply for a mail ballot for the May primary?

Go to VotesPA.com/mailballotapply and follow the instructions.

What will I need for the application?

If you have a Pa. driver’s license or state-issued PennDOT ID, you need to use that. If you don’t have either, use the last four digits of your Social Security number and be sure to follow the specific instructions from there.

What’s the deadline to register?

May 11 is the last day to apply for a mail ballot. You have until 8 p.m. on May 18 to return your completed primary ballot to your county election office.

So what’s the difference between the regular and the annual mail ballot application?

It’s the same application. The annual program is an optional box you can check. If you do, you’ll automatically be sent mail ballots for every 2021 election — primary, general and, in certain circumstances, a special election. If you want to apply for a mail ballot for only one election at a time, don’t check that box.

I thought I already enrolled to be a ‘permanent’ mail voter. Why do I need to reapply?

You have to reapply due to the way the 2019 legislation expanding access to mail ballots was written. Voters have the option of enrolling once for the whole year — instead of requesting a new ballot with every election.

In theory, this was supposed to make it easier for voters and create less of a paperjam for county election officials. It also theoretically encourages turnout, since subsequent ballots will be sent out automatically for the rest of the year.

But the idea of calling it a “permanent” is confusing, because yes, you still need to reapply.

How do I know if I’m on the annual ballot list?

Go to the “check registration status” tab on VotesPA.com, and enter your information. Once your registration page loads, look for the question “Are you a permanent voter?”

If YES, you’re already on the list. You’ll receive a renewal application in the mail by the end of February. You can also just renew online.

If it says NO, you’re not yet signed up for “permanent” voter status.

I got the annual renewal application in the mail. Do I have to return it or can I do it online?

Either works. You can send back the mail application, or sign up online — either using the QR code on the bottom of the paper form or by submitting a new application.

My status says I’m on the annual renewal list, but I didn’t receive the application in the mail. Can I still apply online?

Yes, just use the standard application online to re-apply.

What happens if I don’t return my annual mail ballot application?

You have until the May 11 deadline to return it to your county election office, just like a regular mail ballot application. If you miss the deadline, you’ll be allowed to vote in person. You can then apply for a mail ballot in the following election.

Voters enrolled in the annual mail ballot program will remain enrolled unless they actively cancel their annual mail ballot status.

How do I cancel my ballot request?

If you fill out the mail ballot application and then change your mind, fill out this cancellation form and return it to your county election office.

If you’re on the “annual” list, this will cancel your enrollment, so you’ll need to re-apply down the road if you want to vote by mail again.

Who can I call with questions?

The Pa. Department of State has a voter hotline: 1-877-VOTESPA. Or call your county election office — find the info for any county here. In Philadelphia, call the Office of the City Commissioners at 215-686-1591.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2021 stories.

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