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

Interest in mail voting has declined since it first became an option for Pennsylvanians in 2020. One of the counties with the biggest drop this year? Philadelphia.

Reasons range from mistrust in the postal service to excitement about voting in person, especially among younger voters, people involved with voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts in Philadelphia told Billy Penn.

The numbers are down across the commonwealth: 16.2% of registered voters requested mail ballots for this month’s election. That’s still about 1.4 million voters, but a sizable decrease from the 2.6 million Pennsylvanians who cast votes by mail two years ago, during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In mail voting percentage, Philadelphia falls below the statewide average — and even further below the surrounding collar counties.

About 3 in 20 registered Philly voters (just under 165k total) requested a mail ballot this year, per Nov. 2 stats from the Pa. Department of State. The region breaks down like this:

  • Philadelphia: 15.4%
  • Delaware County: 16.4%
  • Bucks County: 20.4%
  • Chester County: 20.9%
  • Montgomery County: 22%

In Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, 20.3% of registered voters requested a mail ballot.

The postal service could be one reason local voters are turning toward in-person voting. Mail theft and check-washing schemes in the region have hit the news this year, and complaints about mail delays in the city still persist.

“Every time I’m in a meeting and people talk about mail ballots, people also talk about that the mail’s been very slow in the city, or there’s even been an increase in complaints about lost mail,” said Alex Reusing, a Democratic committeeperson in the 22nd Ward, who lives in Mt. Airy. “I’m not surprised that there’s a drop off.”

Another possible factor: people might be worried about making mistakes on their ballot that could cause it not to be counted, said Jen Devor, president and co-founder of the civic engagement nonprofit Better Civics.

Voters she’s spoken with have expressed nervousness around missing elements like security envelopes or signatures.

Between the anxiety around mistakes and the mail delays, Devor added, the method might just not have been pushed as much by groups looking to get out the vote this year.

“I think that a lot of organizers who would normally be pushing out vote by mail feel that stress and pressure, and so maybe aren’t encouraging it,” Devor said.

Angelique Hinton, executive director of PA Youth Vote, said some of Philadelphia’s lower-income communities of color might be less inclined to vote by mail due to less trust in government, which they feel hasn’t served them as well as it’s served wealthier, better resourced communities.

On top of that, she said, there’s also disinformation and negative rhetoric around mail voting that’s clouded public perceptions of the practice since 2020 — when Philadelphia was a particular flashpoint.

“A lot of times, kind of how you respond is based on your lived experience and whether or not you trust these systems,” Hinton said. “And right now, trust in these systems is even harder, because you hear all these other conversations going on, and so I think it’s all playing a part in just how people are deciding to vote.”

Philadelphia is the county with the steepest drop in mail ballot requests relative to November 2020, per a late October analysis by The Inquirer. As of two weeks before Election Day, the number of requests in Philly was just a third of the total in that presidential election.

Pennsylvania’s 2020 primary was the first to have no-excuse mail voting. Before that, state law only allowed voters who’d be physically gone from their precinct on Election Day to vote by mail, using an absentee ballot. That change happened to align with the arrival of COVID in the U.S., leading many to feel uncomfortable voting in person.

For some people, the choice to vote in person might just come down to preference, particularly now that people’s comfort levels around COVID have shifted.

A lot of young voters in particular have shown excitement around the experience of voting in person, said Thomas Quinn, PA Youth Vote’s Education and Policy Director. In its analysis, the Inquirer also found mail voters in Pennsylvania are skewing older than in 2020.

When PA Youth Vote was looking for students who wanted to participate in a march to the ballot box event at City Hall, Quinn said, it wasn’t so easy to recruit students who were looking to cast mail ballots. A lot of them said they wanted to vote in person, he said, or their parents were excited for them to go to the polls together.

“It’s a cool machine,” Quinn said. “It’s like, you get to push the buttons. What kid likes to fill in bubbles, like a standardized test? Much rather have a giant iPad in front of you and get to choose your candidates that way.”

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...