This gives voters, candidates, and county election officials an extra six weeks to prepare for the primary, which will likely occur under unprecedented circumstances. Coronavirus has led many parts of Pennsylvania to shut down and most of its residents to self-quarantine. The social distancing guidelines mean people are avoiding any sort of gatherings, and people are asked to only visit places that might have people close together, like grocery stores, as infrequently as possible.
After initially wanting businesses to start opening up again by Easter, President Donald Trump relented and said on March 29 that social distancing guidelines will continue until at least the end of April. Some health experts expect closures to continue beyond then.
There are no certainties that everything will be back to normal by June 2, and whether standing in line on Election Day with other voters will be permitted. In fact, Pennsylvania’s new voting law (Act 77 of 2019) allows county officials to close polling places if necessary. There is a chance in-person voting will be extremely limited or not exist at all.
But fear not: Last year, Pennsylvania altered its voting rules and now all registered voters can vote by mail with no excuse necessary. Given the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, Pittsburgh City Paper is urging everyone who can to take advantage of the new no-excuse mail-in ballot law. And CP isn’t the only one. Both state and Allegheny County officials have launched advertising campaigns encouraging voters to vote by mail.
Here is how you can vote by mail and why it’s important not just this upcoming election, but all future Pennsylvania elections.
How to vote by mail
Pennsylvania ballots are almost all finalized, but there are a few things you must do before you can receive a ballot in the mail.
First, make sure you are registered to vote. This can be accomplished easiest by registering online at votespa.com/Register-to-Vote. Or fill out a Pennsylvania Voter Registration Application and mail it to your county voting office. (In Allegheny County, that’s 542 Forbes Ave., Suite 609, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15219-2913.) To register, Pennsylvania residents must have a PennDOT driver’s license or identification card, or supply the last four digits of their social security number.
Only U.S. citizens are allowed to vote. Applications are available in English and Spanish. The registration deadline is now May 18. Remember, Pennsylvania is a closed primary state, so if you want to vote for candidates in the primary, you must register for their political party. All voters, even those without party affiliation, can vote for ballot questions during the primary.
Once registered, voters can apply for a mail-in ballot application. The easiest way to do this is online at VotesPA.com/ApplyMailBallot. To apply, voters must supply their PennDOT driver’s license or ID, or their last four digits of their social security number. If voters don’t have those for the application, they must provide a copy of another form of current identification that shows a name, a photo, and an expiration date. This alternative ID can be a U.S. Passport; a U.S. Military ID; employee photo ID issued by a federal, Pennsylvania state, Pennsylvania county, or Pennsylvania municipal government; photo ID issued by an accredited Pennsylvania public or private institution of higher learning; or a photo ID issued by a Pennsylvania care facility, including long-term care facilities, assisted-living residences and personal-care homes.
Pennsylvania is also allowing absentee ballot applications for those accustomed to voting that way. The deadline to apply for a no-excuse mail-in ballot and absentee ballot application is May 26. If you like, you can signify that you would like permanent mail-in ballots, and your county election office will mail you a ballot for each election, including potential special elections, for that calendar year. A permanent mail-in ballot request must be submitted every year.
Once all ballots are finalized, county officials will mail voters a ballot if their applications are accepted. Then, mark the ballot following the instructions and make sure to sign the ballot or it may not count. Place the ballot in the secrecy envelope provided, put a stamp on the envelope, and mail it to your county election office. (Allegheny County’s is 542 Forbes Ave., Suite 609, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15219-2913.) The deadline to return your mail-in or absentee ballot is 8 p.m. on June 2. The ballot must be received by that deadline. Postmarks do not count. So, mail in your ballot a couple days early, just to be safe.
An important reminder is that if you apply for and receive a mail-in ballot, it is best to vote via the mail-in ballot, since you will not be allowed to vote on the machines at your polling place on Election Day. This is to ensure people do not vote twice. If you do request and receive a mail-in ballot, but don’t return it, you may be able to vote at your polling place, but you must request a provisional ballot.
Why this is important
Given the coronavirus closures and social distancing requirements, it’s possible voting by mail will be your only chance to vote in Allegheny County and the surrounding area for this upcoming primary election. Stay-at-home orders have already been instituted for Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. It’s unclear when those will be lifted, and it’s possible more area counties will be added.
But the law could have lasting benefits beyond the rarity of voting during a pandemic. It could also boost Pennsylvania’s low voter turnout. According to Washington Monthly magazine, Pennsylvania’s voter turnout was poor compared to other states that have had vote-by-mail for years. In the 2014 election, Pennsylvania’s turnout among registered voters was around 48 %, even with a hotly contested U.S. Senate race. While in 2014 in Oregon, which has vote-by-mail, had no U.S. Senate or governor’s race and still produced about 71% turnout among registered voters. Turnout has been increasing in Pennsylvania since 2014, but no-excuse vote-by-mail may give the state a boost.
Whether or not that’s good for certain factions of each political party (increased turnout recently has been tied to more moderate candidates winning election), there is little doubt it’s beneficial for democratic values. The more people vote, the more representative Pennsylvania will be of its citizens.