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Pa. Election 2024: Everything You Need to Know About Requesting, Filling Out and Returning Your Mail Ballot

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HARRISBURG — On April 23, Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania will vote for their parties’ candidates for president, U.S. House and Senate, state row offices (attorney general, auditor general and treasurer) and the legislature.

While many voters will head to their local polling place on Election Day, others will opt to vote by mail instead. All registered voters in the commonwealth have been able to vote by mail since 2020.

The mail voting process can be confusing and has been made even more so by legal challenges, disinformation undermining public faith in elections and efforts by many Republican lawmakers to prohibit its use.

Still, it’s important to know that all registered voters in Pennsylvania legally have the option to cast a ballot by mail if they choose to do so.

In the upcoming primary, only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for candidates because Pennsylvania is one of nine states that has a closed primary system.

Here’s everything you need to know about voting by mail:

How do I request a mail ballot?

You can apply for a mail ballot online, in person at a county election office, or through the mail. Paper applications are also available for download in Spanish and Chinese, in addition to English. Applications must be received by your county election board by 5 p.m. April 16.

If you’re not already registered to vote, you must do so by April 8. Online voter registration applications must be submitted by 11:59 p.m that day. Mail and in-person applications must be received by the county board of elections by 5 p.m. Postmarks do not count.

You must provide identification to apply for a mail ballot. Acceptable options include a Pennsylvania driver’s license or the last four digits of a Social Security number. The Pennsylvania Department of State has a full list of the approved forms of identification online.

You can apply for a one-time mail ballot or request to be added to the annual mail ballot list, which means you’ll get an application each year. You must submit this application for every year you wish to vote by mail.

If you have an emergency and miss the deadline, you may still be able to request an emergency application for an absentee ballot.

How do I make sure my ballot is counted?

The best way to ensure your vote counts is to follow the instructions on your mail ballot, especially when it comes to correctly dating it.

At the end of last year, Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt announced a mail ballot redesign that is being rolled out in this year’s primary election. Changes include new instructions with accompanying graphics, a new yellow background for the secrecy envelope, and a pre-filled “20” for the year on the outer envelope (so that voters don’t accidentally put their birthdate). State officials say all of these adjustments are intended to help cut down on common mistakes voters make when submitting mail ballots.

Here are some key mail ballot rules to remember:

  • You must use blue or black ink to fill out your ballot.
  • Each ballot comes with two envelopes: an inner “secrecy” envelope (labeled “official election ballot”) and an outer envelope. Ballots must be sealed in the inner envelope, and you cannot write on this envelope.
  • Once you’ve properly sealed the inner envelope, place it in the outer envelope and seal that.
  • There is a voter declaration on the outer envelope. You must sign and date below the declaration. Make sure you do not accidentally write your birthdate.
  • Some counties require paid postage, but others don’t. Check your county election website to confirm and double-check the amount of postage, as longer mail ballots may require additional postage.

How do I return my mail ballot?

There are several methods for returning your ballot, but the most important thing to remember is that your county election board must receive your ballot by 8 p.m. on Election Day. If you’re returning your ballot in person or using a drop box, you must use a location in your county. If you deliver your ballot to another county, it won’t be counted.

  • Return by mail: To return your ballot through the mail, all you have to do is use the proper postage and mail it out the same way you’d send any mail. Because counties cannot count ballots that come in after 8 p.m. on Election Day, the sooner you mail your ballot, the better.
  • Deliver in person: Make sure your ballot has been properly filled out and sealed, then return the ballot in person to your county election office. Some counties may also have other designated return sites. Find the address for your county election office or drop-off sites online.
  • Use a drop box: Drop boxes are another secure method of returning a mail ballot (guidance from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency says they should be securely bolted to the ground and monitored by security cameras). Not all counties have them. The Pennsylvania Department of State says voters should look on their county’s website to find an official list of locations.

After you mail or deliver your ballot, you can check the status of your mail ballot online. This is because every mail ballot outer envelope has an individual barcode that is specific to you. Once this barcode is scanned, it will be recorded that your mail ballot was received. However, your actual mail ballot will not be opened and counted until Election Day, per Pennsylvania law.

If you have a disability that prevents you from returning your own ballot, you may fill out a form to designate someone else to return it for you. You must turn in the form with your mail ballot application, and the designee must have a copy on hand when they return your ballot.

Otherwise, you must return your own ballot.

Politicians have used isolated instances of illegal ballot returns to challenge the security of mail voting, but these incidents do not indicate widespread fraudulent voting. In fact, mail ballot fraud is extremely rare given the security hurdles voters must clear in order to receive one, the tracking measures to which these ballots are subjected and the auditing procedures states use to make sure that ballots aren’t cast by ineligible voters and that nobody votes twice.

Visit vote.pa.gov to read the Pennsylvania Department of State’s rules for mail ballots.

Read Spotlight PA’s complete coverage, including candidate and election guides, primers on misinformation and more, at our 2024 Election Center.

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