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  • How To Vote In 2020

    Everything you need to know about voting by mail, or in person, in Pennsylvania

    A lot has changed since the last presidential election, and there’s a lot of information out there (some less reliable than others).

    We’re here to help.

    Every Pennsylvania voter is now allowed to vote by mail. Want to vote in person? We’ll help you figure out both.

    Looking for New Jersey? Here’s our guide to voting in New Jersey.

    One note: Things are changing fast, so make sure to check back for updates. You can also sign up for our 2020 email newsletter, with our best reporting on the election every Wednesday.

    The translations of this guide were made possible by a grant from the American Press Institute.

    Here are some straightforward answers to common questions:

    More questions and troubleshooting

    Will the drop off boxes be guarded? How will the mail-in votes be protected?Where can I go to see a sample ballot?How can I volunteer on election day?

    Should I vote and how can I register?

    Why should I vote?

    If you’re eligible to vote, it’s your choice. Voting gives you (and others) the chance to decide who takes office, which can shape policy and how the government is run. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, present very different views of how America should be run, as do the third-party candidates.

    Your participation helps shape policy, both by determining who wins and because voting makes you more important to politicians and elected officials. Politicians care particularly about voters, political scientists say, because they need them to win. So uneven turnout can lead to uneven policy.

    The wealthier and better-educated someone is, for example, the more likely they are to vote; their preferences are reflected in policy-making. So even if your candidates don’t win, your participation makes you more visible — and important — to policy-makers and politicians.

    Of course, there’s a very practical and immediate reason to vote in this election: Your vote is worth a lot in Pennsylvania. Our state is particularly important in deciding who wins the presidency because just a small number of votes could determine the winner.

    What races are on the ballot?

    • President and vice president of the United States (as one ticket), who head the federal government;

    • A representative in Congress, who represents your area as one of 18 Pennsylvania lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C., responsible for making and changing laws, providing federal oversight over the executive branch;

    • The state attorney general, who is Pennsylvania’s top law enforcement official and responsible for investigating and prosecuting state crimes, upholding Pennsylvania law, and representing the state in lawsuits;

    • The state auditor general, who is Pennsylvania’s financial watchdog and responsible for investigating how public money is spent;

    • The state treasurer, who is responsible for state money, including running the 529 College Savings Program and the unclaimed property program to return property to its owners;

    • A state senator, who represents your area as one of 50 lawmakers in the state Senate; and

    • A state representative, who represents your area as one of 203 lawmakers in the state House of Representatives in Harrisburg.

    Philadelphia voters also have four voter questions in which they are asked whether to make specific changes to the city government.

    Am I eligible to vote?

    To register in Pennsylvania, you must:

    • Have been a United States citizen for at least 30 days before Election Day

    • Be a resident of Pennsylvania (and your election district) for at least 30 days before Election Day

    • Be at least 18 years old on Election Day

    How do I register?

    The quickest way is to use the Department of State’s online form. You can also fill out a paper application and either mail or hand-deliver it to your county elections office.

    What’s the voter registration deadline?

    You can register to vote until the end of the day October 19, which is 15 days before Election Day. We encourage you to register earlier if you can, which gives you more time to do things such as request a mail ballot and to address any problems that might come up.

    Do I need a Pennsylvania driver’s license to register?

    No. If you do have one, it will be connected to your registration so that, say, your driver’s license signature will be used as your voter registration signature. If you don’t have a driver’s license or state ID, you’ll be asked to use your social security number.

    What if I’m in prison?

    Pennsylvania does not allow people to vote while they are in prison serving a felony conviction.

    However, you can vote once you are released, including if you are on probation, parole, or house arrest. Basically, as long as you are not in prison for a felony conviction, you should be eligible. That right is automatically restored when you leave prison and does not require, for example, sign-off from the governor, as is the case in other states.

    You can also vote if you are in pretrial proceedings (even if you’re in jail), have been convicted of a misdemeanor, or will be released from prison before Election Day.

    I’m already registered but need to change some information, how do I do that?

    Use the same Department of State form, which will allow you to say you’re not a new registrant, just updating your address, name, or political party.

    What do I do if I have problems registering?

    Contact your county elections office. You can also get help through various advocacy groups, including the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

    Political parties, campaigns, and elected officials may also be able to help.

    I’m already registered, is there anything I should check or do?

    You should check your registration info here to make sure you’re still properly registered and that your name and address are correct. Sometimes, people run into trouble because they forget to update their voter registration after changing their name or moving.

    How can I vote by mail?

    How can I apply to vote by mail?

    The quickest way is to use the Department of State’s online form, which will require a driver’s license number, state ID number, or social security number. You can also fill out a paper application and either mail it or hand-deliver it to your county elections office.

    Can I vote in person after requesting to vote by mail?

    Yes. If you’ve requested to vote by mail, you can bring your ballot and envelope with you and hand them over to poll workers to be voided. At that point, you’ll be allowed to vote on the machines as though you never requested a mail ballot at all.

    If you don’t have your ballot with you, including if it didn’t arrive on time, you can still show up to the polls and vote on a provisional ballot, which is a paper ballot that is set aside and counted once it is clear you are eligible to vote.

    I voted by mail in the primary. Am I automatically registered?

    Possibly. When you register to vote by mail, you can sign up to do so for the entire year, as well as to automatically receive applications to do so in future years. So many voters who applied to vote by mail in the primary election also signed up to receive one in November. But you’re not automatically signed up to vote by mail, unless you requested it.

    The best advice: just check your mail ballot status online.

    Is it better to vote by mail or in person?

    It’s up to you. A vote cast by mail is worth the same as a vote cast in person.

    There are other concerns you might consider, though, especially this year. See the next two questions. And remember that not everyone has equal access to voting by mail or in person, such as if a disability prevents you from easily voting in person.

    You might also prefer the flexibility and convenience of voting by mail, including the ability to sit with your ballot and research candidates, and to choose the best time for you to fill out your ballot before Election Day.

    Do I need a stamp to vote by mail?

    No. All counties will provide prepaid postage for submitting your filled-out mail ballot, funded by the state. (You still need postage for ballot applications and voter registration forms.)

    What if I can’t apply online and can’t print the form?

    Contact your county elections office to request a paper application be mailed to you. You can also contact the state at ra-voterreg@pa.gov or 1-877-VOTESPA. But they’ll ultimately refer your request to your county office, so it’s easier to just start there.

    How can I check my vote by mail status?

    You can check your ballot status online, including whether your application has been approved, the ballot has been mailed, and whether it’s been received once you send it back. If you include your email address when applying to vote by mail, you should also get emails notifying you of changes to your ballot status. And you can always call your county office to check your status.

    Note, however, that the ballot tracker may be off by a few days because of how the data is input. For example, when you request a ballot, it won’t show up in the tracker until the application has been processed. The date it lists for when your ballot was requested is actually the date for when the request was processed. That can be off by several days, depending on how long it took before county officials got to your request. Similarly, your ballot may arrive at county offices but not be scanned in for a few days.

    Can I pick up a mail-in ballot in person?

    Asked by Stacie N.

    Yes, at your county elections office.

    Under the election law passed last year, county elections staff have to give you your mail ballot on the spot, if you show up to apply for one. Contact your elections office in advance to make sure the ballots are available, because a few places are still finalizing their ballots and getting all their materials.

    At the elections office, you can fill out (or hand over) a mail ballot application; the elections staff process it and give you your mail ballot; and you can fill it out and return it right then and there, if you want. You can essentially vote early and in person: Request, receive, fill out, and submit your mail ballot, all in one trip.

    Some counties are trying to take advantage of this by setting up satellite elections offices so voters will have multiple locations to use this kind of early voting. Philly opened its first sites Tuesday, Sept. 29.

    You can also do this and pick up the ballot and take it home. Just because you request and receive your ballot there doesn’t mean you have to vote on it right away.

    What is the earliest date I can hand deliver my ballot in Pennsylvania?

    As soon as you have your mail ballot, you can go to your county elections office and turn it in. If drop boxes or other options are available, you can use those, too.

    When is the last day I can vote by mail?

    Your ballot must be hand-delivered by 8 p.m. Election Day or mailed by Election Day and received by the Friday after, according to an order from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (Normally, state law requires ballots to be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day, regardless of when they were mailed, but the court said mail delivery times and pandemic-related ballot processing delays could lead to ballots being unfairly delayed, disenfranchising voters.)

    However, the United States Postal Service has said ballots should be mailed at least one week before they need to arrive. We recommend you drop off your ballot at a county elections office or drop box.

    The state Republican Party is challenging that deadline, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse it and not count ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day. While the court has declined to block the deadline extension so far, it may still do so after Election Day and the state has ordered the ballots to be kept separate so they can be easily included or removed from the ultimate results. So while experts say the prospect of the ballots being thrown out and flipping the election are low, it’s still safest to have your ballot in by Election Day.

    To find a drop box or satellite elections office near you, click here.

    Could USPS problems prevent my vote from counting?

    Pennsylvania does have tight mail ballot deadlines that may have prevented tens of thousands of people from voting in the primary election. And mail delivery problems since then have raised concerns about whether ballots will be delivered in time to be counted.

    The USPS warned Pennsylvania that mail ballots may not be delivered on time if they are requested near Election Day, prompting the Department of State to warn of the risk of disenfranchisement and ask the state Supreme Court to change the deadlines. The court agreed, extending the deadline.

    So if it’s close to Election Day and you’re worried your ballot won’t be mailed back in time, consider your other options (see below). And to safely vote by mail and ensure your ballot is counted, elections officials urge you to do it as early as possible.

    My signature changes often. How should I sign my mail-in ballot and how will it be checked?

    Asked by Velma M. and Van E.

    You should sign the same way you did when you registered to vote, because that's what the signature will be compared with. Elections workers basically look at the signature on the ballot envelope and the signature on file — for example, whatever PennDOT sent over from when a voter registered when receiving a driver's license — and see whether it appears to match enough that they believe it is the same person.

    If you are concerned that your signature on file is no longer accurate, contact your county elections office and they will help you update it.

    What is a naked ballot?

    A naked ballot is a mail ballot that a voter submits without an inner “secrecy envelope.”

    Pennsylvania uses a two-envelope system: Filled-out ballots go first inside a blank, anonymous secrecy envelope, and then into the return envelope that is addressed to the county elections office and has the voter’s signature and information. If voters place the ballot directly into the return envelope, it’s “naked.”

    The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that naked ballots must be rejected under state law, meaning those votes will not be counted.

    Why are there so many envelopes?

    The two-envelope system is meant to protect voter privacy. When elections staff check votes before counting them — and parties and campaigns potentially challenge their legitimacy — what they’re looking at is the outer return envelope, such as seeing whether a voter signed the envelope and making sure someone didn’t vote both in person and by mail.

    If the outer envelope doesn’t raise any problems, it’s opened and the secrecy envelope and ballot inside are taken out. The secrecy envelopes are then put together, so the two-step process is theoretically meant to prevent an individual voter’s ballot from being identifiable.

    That system may be outdated at this point, some county elections officials say, because of the equipment they have. Envelopes are opened so quickly, in large batches, that identifying individual ballots is virtually impossible, they say.

    Are the naked ballots important?

    It’s hard to predict how many naked ballots there will be this election, in part because this is the first presidential election that all Pennsylvania voters can vote by mail. And most naked ballots were counted in the past, so we don’t have good data.

    That said, there are some suggestions the numbers could be very high, in the tens of thousands or even, Philadelphia elections chief Lisa Deeley said, more than 100,000. (Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes in 2016.) In the handful of counties for which we have some past data available, around 5% of ballots appear to have been returned without secrecy envelopes.

    Where can I return my ballot?

    Asked by Jim

    You can mail your ballot, or deliver it by hand by dropping it off at a county elections office. Some counties are even setting up new offices to make that easier.

    However, the United States Postal Service has said ballots should be mailed at least one week before they need to arrive. We recommend you drop off your ballot at a county elections office or drop box.

    To find a drop box or satellite elections office near you, click here.

    How do I know if my ballot was received?

    You can check your ballot status online and if you include your email address when applying to vote by mail, you should also get automated emails notifying you of changes to your ballot status.

    You can also call your county office to check your status.

    Just remember that county elections staff are constantly scrambling to respond to many different things at once. Your ballot may arrive at the county office but not be actually scanned as received for a few days.

    Will I be able to find out when my ballot is counted?

    Asked by Bryan C.

    Yes, the Pennsylvania Department of State's ballot tracking website lets you to see whether your ballot is counted. If you included your email address when you applied for the ballot, you should receive an email at each step, including counting your ballot. (Just note that it is not exactly in real time, but close.)

    What if I lost my ballot or never received it?

    You can ask your county elections office to send you a new ballot and void the old one. (But if you find or receive your original ballot, make sure not to use it. It will not be counted once it’s been voided in the system.)

    You can also still show up to the polls and vote on a provisional ballot, which is a paper ballot that is set aside and counted once it is clear you are eligible to vote.

    Will my mail-in ballot include the same races as an in-person ballot?

    Asked by Michael W.

    It should. Whether by mail or in person, votes count the same and are for all the same candidates in the same races.

    That said, there is the possibility that something happens after mail ballots are sent out — for example, if someone is removed from the ballot. In that case, your ballot would have already been sent to you with the candidate who is no longer on the in-person ballot. (And mail ballots sent out after that will not have the person on them, or maybe include some notice that the person has been removed.)

    So mail and in-person ballots should have all the same candidates for the same races, and the only reason they wouldn’t is if something changes after a mail ballot has already been sent out.

    How are mail ballots counted?

    Counties are allowed to count mail ballots beginning on Election Day — not before. It’s a multi-step process that involves scanning the ballot envelope to make sure it’s legitimate and to mark the voter as having voted; checking voter signatures to see whether they match what’s on file; opening the mailing envelope; opening the blank secrecy envelope inside and removing the ballot; and scanning the ballot itself. County procedures vary, but in many counties they also organize the ballots into batches based on voting precinct, so a precinct’s ballots are all counted at once.

    Some of this is sped up through equipment that can sort mail, slice open envelopes, and extract ballots. The last step, of actually reading the ballots and tallying the selections, is usually done on high-speed scanners that process large batches of ballots at a time.

    Elections officials in the Philadelphia region are planning to count ballots around the clock until they’re done.

    Do I get a sticker if I vote by mail?

    That depends on the county, but probably not. Some counties don’t have stickers at all and never have. We asked a few county elections officials and they don’t plan on sending stickers to people, but in some states, they send stickers with the ballot. Sometimes, they’re even specifically worded to say that you voted by mail. Of course, you could always ask your county office whether they’ll let you pick up a sticker, or mail one to you. They’ll probably say yes. (But please don’t inundate them with calls when they’re busy.)

    How can I vote in person?

    How do I vote in person?

    Things differ slightly by county, but generally you show up to your polling place, check in with a poll worker who signs you into a poll book, and then you vote on a voting machine.

    Can I vote early in-person at the elections office?

    Asked by Susan R.

    Yes, once mail ballots are available you'll be able to go to your county elections office and request, receive, fill out, and submit your mail ballot in one trip. Some counties are trying to set up satellite elections offices to help make this more accessible. Philly has begun opening the first of its 17 early voting sites.

    What do I need to know about the voting machines?

    They might be different from what you’ve used in the past. Every voting machine in the state has been replaced in the last two years to leave a paper trail recording every vote, so none of the machines are the same as they were in 2016. Paper-based voting systems are more secure because those records of individual votes can be audited or even hand-recounted.

    If you’ve voted in person in a recent election, you may have used the new machines, depending on when they were rolled out. Montgomery County, for example, used its new system in the May 2019 primary election. Philadelphia debuted its system that November.

    Some counties, such as Philadelphia, use a touchscreen system where voters make their selections on the machine, have those selections printed, and then send that paper off to be stored in a cartridge. Other counties, including Montgomery, use hand-marked paper ballots that voters manually fill out, such as by filling in bubbles, and then bring over to a scanner to cast their vote. Some counties use a hybrid model where a touchscreen voting machine is used to make selections and print them to a ballot, which a voter then retrieves and takes over to a separate scanner to cast their vote.

    Do I need ID to vote?

    Only if this is your first time voting in that precinct, such as if you have moved to a new neighborhood or are newly registered. Otherwise, you won’t need photo ID and shouldn’t be asked for it.

    If your polling place has changed, but you’re still in the same precinct, you don’t need ID.

    When you vote in a precinct for the first time, you’ll need to show identification, such as a Pennsylvania driver’s license, U.S. passport, or student ID. There are also non-photo forms of identification that include your name and address, such as a current utility bill or bank statement.

    Here’s the list from the Pennsylvania Department of State.

    When are polls open?

    Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on November 3. You can line up before 7 a.m., which voters often do to cast an early vote, and if you are in line by 8 p.m. you will be allowed to vote.

    Will there be PPE?

    Yes. Elections officials are working to provide equipment to poll workers and voters who may need it. In the primary, depending on the county and polling place, this included masks, gloves, tape for marking the floor for social distancing, face shields, and cleaning supplies. (Polling places received slightly different materials, such as receiving either face shields or hard plastic barriers that attach` to poll workers’ tables.)

    More questions and troubleshooting

    Will the drop off boxes be guarded? How will the mail-in votes be protected?

    This varies a bit by county and drop box, and legislation and litigation may change the rules to require certain things. As of right now, counties are considering a variety of methods, such as 24-hour video surveillance or placing drop boxes inside staffed offices. Mail ballot drop boxes are also designed to resist tampering and mishap: An SUV slammed into a drop box in Washington last year, running over it and getting stuck on top, but there was no real damage to the box and it was reinstalled the next day.

    Where can I go to see a sample ballot?

    Asked by Patricia D.

    Check the website for your county elections office. Here, for example, are Philly’s sample ballots for in-person and mail voting.

    How can I volunteer on election day?

    Asked by Eric D.

    To be a poll worker — which is paid! — you can fill out this online form and the Department of State will tell your county you're interested. You can also contact your county elections office directly, though many are extremely busy right now and may not get back to you immediately.

    On election day, will the counting take place 24 hours a day?

    Asked by Robert G.

    Yes, in the biggest counties, and probably not in others. Philadelphia and its suburban Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties are all planning to begin counting mail ballots the morning of Election Day and to staff the operation around the clock so things get done as quickly as possible.

    That’s different from usual, and most other counties won’t do the same, because it will have been a long day, following a long election season, and the long process of counting ballots will require staff to be alert and awake. Plus, other counties will have far fewer ballots and it may not take them as long to count ballots, anyway.

    If I hand over my ballot to vote in person, how do I know my vote has been recorded? Will I receive an email?

    If you hand over your ballot, you’ll vote using the same voting machines as everyone else who votes in person. So your vote will be counted because it’s with all the rest of the ballots.

    If you didn’t have your ballot and had to use a provisional ballot, you can look up your provisional ballot number on the state’s website after the election to see whether it was counted.

    How are mail-in ballots deemed invalid and how can that be challenged?

    Asked by Robert G.

    There are several ways ballots can be rejected, such as if it arrives after the deadline. Another common reason is when something is wrong with the signature — it might be missing, or doesn’t match the signature on file — and problems such as missing or wrong envelopes.

    This year, under a new ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, counties will have to reject ballots that arrive without their inner secrecy envelope. There could be tens of thousands or even more than 100,000 of these “naked ballots,” most of which were counted in the past.

    More rarely, ballots are rejected because something is wrong with the ballot itself, such as if the barcode on the ballot is scratched off and the voter's name is unavailable, so officials can’t confirm the legitimacy of the ballot. And individual selections may be rejected if, for example, multiple candidates are selected in a race.

    If you think your ballot has been rejected — and the results have not yet been certified — you can contact your county elections office to check on the status of your ballot and be given a chance to fix it, such as supplying a signature.

    Your county elections office likely won’t notify you of a ballot rejection until after certification.

    Are you sure you can bring your mail ballot to the polls to be voided and vote in person? This contradicts the statement on the application form I saw.

    Asked by Rosina M.

    Yes. This is part of Act 12, the emergency election law passed in March. (See Section 1306(b)(3) or just search for the word “voided” to find the relevant provision.) You’ll have to hand over your ballot to be voided and sign a form.

    If you don’t have the ballot, you can also use a provisional ballot, a paper ballot that will be set aside and counted once elections officials confirm your vote should be accepted.

    The application form you saw may be outdated — the law has changed substantially twice in the last year, and it’s possible the form you saw was printed before Act 12 was enacted.

    I received an email from the Department of State saying I don’t need to reapply for a mail ballot because I requested one in the primary. Is this legit?

    Probably. When you request a mail ballot, you can choose to receive a mail ballot either for a single election or for all elections that year. So many voters who applied to vote by mail in the primary election also signed up to receive one in November.

    The Department of State did send out a message in August telling voters they are already on the list and do not need to reapply. (We say “probably” because these were definitely legitimately messages, but technically, sure, without seeing your specific one, it’s possible someone might have sent a fraudulent version of that email. But it’s probably real.)

    If you're worried, just check your mail ballot status online.

    Note: If you signed up for this option, you’ll also receive an annual application asking whether you want to receive mail ballots for all elections that year. Say yes once a year, and you’ll continue receiving ballots to vote by mail.

    Are mail ballots counted? I heard they only count them if a race is close.

    All legitimate votes are counted, whether cast by mail, in person, or by provisional ballot. A vote cast by mail is worth just as much as a vote cast in person, the only difference is when they get counted. In-person votes are mostly all tallied by the end of Election Night, while mail ballots can take days or even weeks to fully count.

    This is one reason why it took days to call races in the primary, which officials and advocates worry will allow for false claims of election rigging and voter fraud. That’s been a concern for months.

    Why have I received two postal mailings from The Center for Voter Information in Harrisburg containing applications with my name and address pre-filled, after applying online Aug 2?

    That group, among others, has sent mail ballot applications to voters across the state recently, and in many cases those forms have been prefilled with information that may be inaccurate. (Some voters have complained about receiving pre-filled applications for dead people or pets.) These applications don't come from elections officials, and anyone can send them — they’re simply a form.

    Because the groups may have bad data, you might receive applications even after having already applying for your ballot, and even after having already been approved for one.

    For official information, check the status of your mail ballot, including whether your request was approved, at the Pennsylvania Department of State website and contact your county elections office if you have problems.

    My daughter has applied for a Mail-In Ballot which will be sent to her address at college. She just received a second application for a Mail-In Ballot. Should she apply again this time using her home address?

    See the question above: Various groups are sending people mail ballot applications, but they aren’t coming from elections officials. So being sent a second application might not mean anything is wrong with the first one.

    Use the Department of State’s online ballot tracker to check the status of the mail ballot, including whether the application was processed and approved. Contact county elections officials if you run into problems.

    During this year’s primary election the return envelopes specifically stated that a stamp was required. Is included postage a change for the fall 2020 election?

    Yes — that’s new for the general election.

    Philadelphia and Montgomery County were among the counties that provided prepaid postage for the first time in the primary election, but most counties did not. In July, the Department of State announced it would provide prepaid postage for all mail ballots across Pennsylvania.

    Note that the prepaid postage only covers the ballot itself. If you’re mailing a ballot application, you’ll still need to pay for postage. And this is only for the fall 2020 general election, not future ones.

    For the primary, I requested an absentee ballot because I was out of town. For the general, I requested a mail in ballot but it was declined because they said I already requested a ballot. I assume I'll get an absentee. Any issue?

    When you requested your mail ballot in the primary election, you may have also signed up to vote by mail in the general election, too. You can check your status here to see whether you’re signed up for the general election.

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