A sorter processes mail-in ballots at the Philadelphia Ballot Processing Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mail voting has been legal in Pennsylvania ever since 2019, when state Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly voted to support the right. It has remained legal despite numerous political and legal challenges after the 2020 presidential election.

It has also remained popular, although requests for mail ballots have fluctuated across Philadelphia in recent elections

However, the proper way to vote by mail has evolved, and Pennsylvania voters, take note: if your ballot isn’t completed properly, you can kiss your vote goodbye. 

For example, if it’s a “naked ballot” — aka not sealed in a secrecy envelope before being placed in the main envelope — it won’t be counted. 

The most common error to cause mail ballots to be thrown out in the May primary election was undated ballots — despite 1,400 voters in Philadelphia having a chance to “cure” their ballot, aka fix them — so make sure to sign AND date the back of the envelope before returning it. 

Note: Don’t worry too much about your signature matching the one on file. In the same decision that made secrecy envelopes a requirement, the Pa. Supreme Court said a handwriting mismatch alone is not reason enough to disqualify a ballot.

The second most common issue? Ballots arriving late. 

Here’s a step-by-step list of how to do it right.

How to get a mail ballot 

Mail-in or civilian absentee ballots must be requested by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31. 

And completed ballots must be received by your county Board of Election by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7. 

While voter registration forms are available in Pennsylvania in 16 languages, mail ballot applications are available only in English, Spanish, and traditional Chinese. 

Note: when registering to vote, you can prove your identity using either your driver’s license number or PennDOT ID number, or a partial Social Security number and a physical or virtual signature. 

If you are a voter who lives with an illness or physical disability that prevents you from filling in your own ballot, you can apply to have a family member or friend help you. This person cannot be your employer, employer’s representative, union representative, or a judge of elections. Both you and your assistant must fill out an Assistance Declaration — you should submit it at the same time that you apply for a mail or absentee ballot, and the person helping you to vote must carry a copy with them if they are delivering your completed ballot in person.

For more info on how to vote on Election Day, we’ve got a guide for that, too

What’s in the package

When getting your ballot via the mail, you’ll receive a thick envelope from your county election office. Here’s what’s in it:

  • The ballot itself
  • An instruction card
  • A secrecy envelope
  • An outer envelope
  • A sheet explaining any other ballot questions

Fill out the ballot clearly, using black or blue ink

Ballot designs vary from county to county, and the non-statewide candidates on it will depend on exactly where you live. What does not vary is this: you must use a blue or black ink pen to fill it out.

Also make sure each oval is darkened fully, and don’t make any marks on the ballot outside those ovals. There may be ovals on both the back and the front of the ballot.

What if you fill out that oval and realize it was the wrong one? Or if your kid or cat knocked your hand while you were doing it and caused a big scribble across the page? You can get a replacement ballot from the county election office.

Make sure to fill in each oval completely, using blue or black ink Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Place ballot in the ‘secrecy’ envelope

It’s not too hard to differentiate between the two envelopes. The secrecy envelope is the one that’s mostly blank but says “Official Election Ballot” on the front. It’s also the smaller of the two.

Fold up your filled-out ballot and place it inside the secrecy envelope, then seal it. Failure to “dress” your ballot this way will result in it being discarded.

DO NOT write on the secrecy envelope.

This is the envelope you might overlook — so make sure to use it, or your vote won’t count Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Put it all in the outer envelope

The outer envelope is the larger one, with lots of markings on it.

The wavy election logo will be stamped on the front, next to the “no postage necessary” mark on the top right corner. The front will also say “Business Reply Mail” and will have the address of your county election board. The back will also be covered with wording — that’s part of the next step.

Take the secrecy envelope containing your filled out ballot, and put the whole thing in the outer envelope, then close and seal the flap.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Sign the back of the outer envelope

Almost done, just need to fill out and sign and date the voter declaration on the back.

This certifies your vote is coming from you — and that you are who you say you are: a registered, valid voter in your current district. It also makes sure you understand that once you submit this ballot, you will not be able to vote in person on Election Day (unless you bring in the ballot AND both envelopes to be voided).

You might notice there are two places to sign. One is for people who filled out their ballot themselves, the majority of folks. (You can only have someone else fill it out for you if that’s already part of your voter registration file, or if you get a separate document from the county election board in advance.)

So, put your autograph next to the appropriate X, and write down the date.

What if your ballot gets wet?

Let it dry, making sure to keep the envelope flaps open so they don’t seal shut. If it looks fine, like a reasonable person would be able to use it, fill it out and send it in. If not, request a new one at your local election office.

Submit your vote

All that’s left is to deliver it. Just like requesting a ballot, you can do that via U.S. mail or in person — either at your county’s election board office or at a designated ballot drop box or staffed drop-off events. 

Mail ballot drop boxes are open until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Here’s a handy map of where to find them in Philadelphia this year.

If you’re sending via U.S.P.S., make sure to do it several days before Election Day — in time for it to arrive at your county Board of Elections by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7. 

Military service members and overseas absentee ballot voters have a little more time: they must get their mail ballot postmarked by 11:59 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 6. These ballots must be received at the appropriate Board of Elections by Tuesday, Nov. 14.