Election 2020: Your guide to voting in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvanians will have the chance to vote for state legislators, row officers, members of Congress, and, of course, the President on Nov. 3. 

The Capital-Star wants to help. This guide has everything you need to know to find your way to the polls, whether you’re casting your vote in-person or by mail.

If you have a question we didn’t answer here, we invite you to get in touch with us – submit your question using this form

A note: All of the information below is current as of Monday, Sept. 21. State lawmakers are debating legislation that could change some deadlines for voting by mail, but those proposals aren’t guaranteed to become law. We’ll immediately update this guide if and when the rules change.

Getting started: how to register to vote. 

You must be a registered voter to cast a ballot on Nov. 3.

Think you’re already registered?

Check here to verify. 

If you’re not registered, you must do so by Oct. 19 to vote in the General Election. 

You’re eligible if you:

  • Have been a United States citizen for at least 30 days before Election Day
  • Have been a resident of Pennsylvania (and your election district) for at least 30 days before Election Day
  • Are at least 18 years old on Election Day

Want to register, or update your registration with a new name, address or party affiliation? 

You can use this form on the Pennsylvania  Department of State website. You’ll need a Pennsylvania drivers license or a social security number. 

Does my party affiliation affect who I can vote for?

No. Whether you register as a Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated voter, your party affiliation doesn’t dictate who you can vote for in the General Election. Voters who registered as Democrats can vote for Republicans, and vice versa. 

Your party registration will matter, however, during Pennsylvania’s primary election – the springtime contests where major parties whittle down a field of candidates for the General Election.  If you register as an independent voter now, you’ll have to register as a Republican or Democrat to vote in the May primary election. 

So you want to vote by mail. 

Every Pennsylvanian is eligible to vote by mail now, thanks to a law the General Assembly passed in 2019. 

Voting by mail is secure. In fact, five states in the nation conduct elections entirely by mail, and their officials say that there’s no indication of widespread or systematic fraud or interference with ballots. It requires just a bit of forethought to get your ballot on time.

A record number of Pennsylvania voters are expected to cast ballots by mail in November, many of them for the first time. We answer some frequently asked questions below.

I’ve never voted by mail. How does it work

To vote by mail in Pennsylvania, you have to ask your county to send you a paper ballot. It’ll come with detailed instructions and all the materials you need to send it back to the election bureau. 

When you’ve filled out the ballot with the votes you want to cast, you put it in the enclosed secrecy envelope. You then put that sealed envelope in a larger, pre-addressed envelope, which you sign, date and drop in the mail. (Sound complicated? This guide lays out all the components.)

No need to worry about stamps – the state is footing the bill for postage this year. 

How do I get a mail-in ballot?

Pennsylvania voters can use this ballot request application on the Department of State website. State law gives you until Oct. 27 to request a mail-in ballot, but the U.S. Postal Service recommends you do it as soon as possible. 

You must be a registered voter to request a ballot, and you’ll need a Pennsylvania driver’s license number to complete the online ballot request form.

What if I don’t have a driver’s license?

If you don’t have a Pennsylvania ID, you can also provide the last four digits of your social security number and upload your signature to request your ballot online. Alternatively, you can file a paper application with your county election office. 

You can get the paper application in-person from your county election office, or submit out this form to ask them to mail one to you.

I already requested my ballot. When will I receive it? 

In short: any day now. 

Counties got the green light to send ballots on Sept. 17, after the state Supreme Court resolved a lawsuit that put ballot printing on hold. 

But actual mailing dates will depend on where you live. Each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have their own resources and timeline for sending out ballots, and some may be able to move more quickly than others.

When’s the deadline to send it back?

Whether you send your ballot by mail or drop it off yourself, state law says your county election office must receive it by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

However, the earlier you mail your ballot back, the better. Voting rights advocates say that mail delays could keep ballots from arriving on time this year. The state Supreme Court has told election officials to count ballots they receive up until Nov. 6, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3. 

Counties cannot count ballots that voters hand-deliver or submit in drop-boxes after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

I don’t trust the mail and want to hand in my ballot myself. Can I do that? 

Yes. State law allows voters to drop your completed ballot at your county election office. Some counties also have secure drop boxes or satellite offices where you can deposit your ballot.

My friend is stopping by the election office and offered to drop off my ballot for me. Is that allowed?

No! State law is clear on this: voters must submit their ballots on their own behalf. You can’t let a third-party hand in your ballot for you, even if it’s a spouse or someone you trust. 

What’s this I hear about early voting?

Some counties are offering early voting options so voters can beat the lines on election day. Allegheny County, for instance, is opening its election office on Saturdays and Sundays in October so voters can request or submit mail-in ballots. 

Early voting isn’t available in every county, so we recommend checking with your local election bureau to see if it’s an option for you. 

Can I track my ballot?

Yes. This tool from the Department of State provides status updates for every step of voting by mail. It’ll tell you whether your ballot request has been processed, when your ballot has been mailed to you, and when your county received it.  

Can my ballot be rejected because of my signature?

No. State officials told counties in September that they aren’t allowed to reject ballots if a voter’s signature doesn’t match the one that’s on record in their voter file. 

The guidelines from Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar came after the state was hit with a lawsuit in federal court, which claimed that Pennsylvania voters had their mail-in ballots rejected in June because counties used inconsistent methods for verifying their authenticity. 

I voted by mail in June. Do I have to request a ballot again?

That depends. The Department of State allows voters to opt in to an annual mail-in ballot option. If you did that in June, you’ll automatically enrolled to receive a mail-in ballot for November. If you want to vote by mail again next year, you’ll have to file a new request. 

If you’re unsure about your annual status, the Department of State tracker will tell you whether you’ve already requested a ballot for the Nov. 3 election.

So you want to vote in person. 

Polls in Pennsylvania are open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Election Day. You can use this site to find your polling place, which is assigned based on the address you provided when you registered to vote.

Can I catch COVID-19 at the polls? 

COVID-19 can spread any time people congregate indoors. The best way to minimize your risk of COVID-19 is to stay at home – a fact that’s led many Pennsylvanians to vote by mail this year.

That said, voting in-person can be done safely. Health officials recommend that you wear a mask while you’re in your polling place, practice social distancing, and wash your hands before and after you use voting equipment. 

Has the pandemic changed in-person voting rules?

Some election officials consolidated polling places or moved them to new locations this year to mitigate overcrowding and staff shortages. Your polling place may not be the same as it was last year, so we recommend checking it before Nov. 3.

Your polling place will likely have new precautions to protect the public from COVID-19. State officials are asking voters to practice social distancing, so you may see longer lines outside. If you’re still waiting in line to vote when polls close at 8 p.m., don’t leave – you’re still entitled to cast a ballot, regardless of when you enter the voting booth.

I requested a mail-in ballot but want to vote in person instead. Can I do that?

Yes. If you bring your mail-in ballot to your polling place and hand it to the poll workers, they’ll void it and allow you to vote in-person.

If you don’t receive your ballot by Election Day, or you lost, don’t fret. You’ll be allowed to cast a provisional ballot – a paper ballot that will be counted once election officials determine that you’re eligible to vote.

Can I help things run smoothly on Election Day?

You bet! Pennsylvania is actively recruiting poll workers to help administer voting on Election Day. This paid position requires a full day of work on Nov. 3, and it’s critical to help elections run smoothly and safely. This handy guide has everything you need to know to sign up.

This article first appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.