Philadelphia's 2020 mail ballots in a secure area at the Pa. Convention Center Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

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Pennsylvania’s got a lot going on this election cycle: a race for governor that’s open on both sides, a U.S. Senate race that could decide the chamber’s balance of power, a congressional map that’s TBD.

As if things weren’t chaotic enough, there’s also a major court challenge to the state’s two-year-old universal mail voting law.

The Pa. Legislature passed the law in the fall 2019 with bipartisan support. Called Act 77, the widespread election law abolished single-button straight-ticket voting and extended mail voting to anyone who wanted to do it, instead of just people out-of-town or in the military.

In part because of the pandemic and worries about gathering in person, Act 77 had an immediate impact. On average, over a third of Philly voters opted to cast their ballot by mail in the past four elections, according to the City Commissioners office.

But a Commonwealth Court decision at the end of last month put the future of that law into uncertainty. The ruling threw out the mail voting provision, deeming it unconstitutional.

However, an immediate appeal by the state revived it — at least until Pennsylvania’s highest court reviews the case.

What should you do if you’re hoping to vote by mail in May? Here’s what to know about the status of the case, its impact, and how to request your mail ballot (which — spoiler alert — is indeed still possible).

Wait, so what happened in court?

In their decision on two consolidated court cases — McLinko v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Bonner v. Degraffenreid — three out of five judges on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania sided with over a dozen Republican politicians who challenged the law, deciding it didn’t pass muster under the state constitution. Establishing mail voting outside of the reasons already written into the state constitution would require the adoption of a constitutional amendment, Judge Hannah Leavitt wrote in the decision.

The Commonwealth Court doesn’t have final say in the matter, though. The state immediately appealed the decision to the Pa. Supreme Court, and the appeal automatically triggered a stay on the matter until the state’s highest court can review the case.

Experts expect the court to decide the matter sooner rather than later, and state Democrats are hopeful that the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court will preserve the law. The Philly City Commissioners have requested that the city law department file an amicus brief on behalf of the Board of Elections in favor of upholding the law.

What does that mean for me? Can I still vote by mail?

In short: no-excuse mail voting isn’t illegal right now, so you can apply for a ballot for the May primary. But ultimately, whether you’ll receive and be able to use that ballot depends on what the Supreme Court does.

“Because of the appeal, the Commonwealth Court’s order has been stayed,” City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said at a press conference on Thursday. “Mail-in voting is still legal.”

Whether universal mail ballots remain legal until the primary rolls around in May depends on whatever the Supreme Court decides, and when it decides it. The court has scheduled arguments on the case for March.

Following the stay, the Department of State told all county election boards that they should prepare for the primary as previously planned.

“We are concerned that if the Supreme Court were to overrule the Commonwealth Court, which we think is likely, then voters would either be confused because of the stories about the earlier Commonwealth Court decision or they would have waited too long,” Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio told Billy Penn. “The stay makes it so there is no immediate effect, the Department of State has advised counties to proceed as normal and we are encouraging voters to do the same.”

How can I request my ballot?

You have a few options.

Before you use any of them, make sure you’re registered to vote. You can check that here.

If you aren’t registered, you can do that by:

  • Filling out the Department of State’s online application,
  • mailing in a paper form (which you can print out online, or pick up from places like post offices, public libraries, or state liquor stores),
  • going in person at the Philadelphia County Board of Elections,
  • or registering at a PennDOT driver’s license center when you get or update your license.

The last day to register before the primary is May 2. Once you’re registered, you can request a ballot.

If you’re voting by mail because you’re going to be physically away from home on Election Day because of your occupation — like if you’re traveling for work or a student away at college — or because you have a disability or illness that prevents you from physically going to a polling place, you should request an absentee ballot. (If you qualify, you’ll be able to cast this type of ballot regardless of what the court rules.) If you’re voting by mail for most other reasons, you should request a mail-in ballot.

To request either type of ballot, you can:

When’s my last chance to do this?

The deadline to request a mail ballot is May 10, one week before the primary. Ballots need to be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day, May 17.

Do I need to apply for a ballot if I signed up to be an annual mail voter last year or the year before?

Yes. Anyone who signs up to be an annual mail voter will receive ballots for all elections in the year they sign up, but you have to renew your status every year. If you signed up to be an annual mail voter last year and haven’t moved counties since then, you should be getting an application in the mail from the City Commissioners to renew your status in the next few weeks.

“The mail-in process has already began for the 2022 primary with the mailing of the annual permanent applications,” Custodio said, “so voters should begin returning their applications.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...