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Voting 2020: Mail-In Ballots in Pennsylvania

Gene J. Puskar
Associated Press

In Pennsylvania, it used to be that you needed an excuse to vote by mail. You had to apply for what’s called an “absentee ballot.”  But in this presidential election year, things are different.  Act 77, signed into law last fall, allows any registered voter in Pennsylvania to choose to vote by mail-in ballot instead of going to the polls on election day.


Michael Pipe is chairman of the board of commissioners for Centre County, and serves on the election board. He says there are different ways to request your mail-in ballot.

“The way that we would recommend,” Pipe says, “is by visiting to request your mail-in ballot. You can also download a form, print it out, fill it out, and send it to the county elections office.”

Ballot applications are being accepted now, so Pipe encourages getting yours in early.

“If people apply now,” he says, “they’ll be getting their ballots no later than that first week of October.”  

If you want to vote by mail, just make sure you get the ballot request to your county elections office by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, October 27th.

“Postmarks,” Pipe adds, “don’t count.”

When you receive your mail-in ballot, he says, it will include a number of items, including the ballot, an instruction sheet, a secrecy envelope, and an outer envelope.

“We would encourage the voter to read through the direction sheet for any information that might be pertinent about the election, how to complete the ballot, by what time, deadlines, and any FAQ’s that we may have on there. After they’ve reviewed that, they can vote their ballot whichever way they choose.  Again, fill in the bubble completely.”

And if you’re used to voting straight party, Pipe says you’ll be filling in more bubbles on the ballot than in previous years.

“This is going to be the first general election in Pennsylvania where there is no single bubble straight-party option.  If a voter would like to vote straight-party they still can, but they would have to select every single candidate in every single race to vote straight party.”

Dawn Graham is director of elections for Clearfield County. She reminds you to follow directions exactly.

“Everything has to be filled-out,” Graham says. “We need your name, your date of birth, either the last four digits of your social security number or your driver’s license number or your Pennsylvania state issued ID.  We need to make sure that it is signed, that the mailing address is correct, and that all the information on there that we request is filled-out.”

Then you’ll fold your ballot, place it in the secrecy envelope, and place that in the outer envelope.  You can return your ballot by mail, or in person at your county elections office. Some counties, like Centre County, may also have drop boxes at various locations, where you can take your ballot.  Check your county’s website for details.

And if you decide to vote by mail, Pipe advises you to keep in mind that all ballots must be received no later than 8 o’clock on election night, November 3rd.  And, again, postmarks do not count.

“USPS has said to folks that they should allow at least 7 days in Pennsylvania to have their ballot returned to the election office. So I would strongly encourage people to heed that advice from the USPS and put their ballots in the mail no later than (October) 28th.

“One of the things that has been out there is that we’re rejecting, you know, tons of applications and tons of ballots,” says Graham. “and that just simply is not true.” 

But some people just don’t get their ballots in on time. Graham says that’s the most common cause of a ballot being rejected.  And she’s seen it firsthand.

“Truthfully,” she says, “I received three ballots: one I think was two weeks ago, from the primary.”

The Pennsylvania primary was held in June.

“They were received well after the primary. So yeah, those aren’t going to count. Another reason might be they did not sign the affidavit on the envelope. It has to be filled-out and it has to be signed.”

Again, following the instructions is crucial. And what happens if you don’t get your ballot on time, or decide you’d rather vote in person on election day?

“If they have requested the ballot, however they did not return the ballot, and they go to the polls to vote,” Graham says,”they can vote one of two ways: if they have their ballot, and the envelopes with them, the poll worker can void the ballot.  They have to fill-out a declaration of returning the ballot. And then they’ll issue them a regular ballot.”

But if you don’t have your mail-in ballot with you when you go to the polls, you will be given a provisional ballot. Graham says if you never got a ballot you requested, your provisional ballot will be counted.

With every registered voter in Pennsylvania eligible to vote by mail, you might think it could be days before all those ballots are counted. And it did take Philadelphia more than two weeks in the primary. But in Centre County, Mike Pipe says they’re going to get busy processing mail-in ballots as early as they are allowed to do so: at 7 a.m. on election day.

“We’re going to continue to process them as the evening goes on, and so we are very confident in Centre County that we will have the vast majority of our election results posted when the night is over.”

Kristine Allen is Program Director of WPSU-FM. She also files feature stories for WPSU on the arts, culture, science, and more. When she's not at WPSU, Kris enjoys playing folk fiddle, acting, singing and portrait-sketching. She is also a self-confessed "science geek." Kris started working in public radio in college, at age 17, and says she "just couldn't stop."
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