Amid a pandemic, encouraged by lawmakers and advocates, they flocked to the option. About 1.5 million voted by mail in the state’s June primary.
But that popularity has also strained the system. Some reported never even getting a ballot, and it took weeks to count the results of that election.
These teething troubles have been compounded by President Donald Trump, who often claims without evidence that voting by mail is unsafe and will result in fraud, and will benefit Democrats.
He has overseen a sudden increase in delays at the U.S. Postal Service that threatens up to 46 states’ legal timetable for returning ballots, potentially disenfranchising millions of voters. That includes Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, Trump, — who requested his own mail-in ballot this week — added that he opposed a Democratic solution to the mail-voting issues, arguing against billions in extra funding for both the post office and state election bureaus.
As those concerns mount, and lawsuits are filed, here’s how we got here, and what you need to know about the state of vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania.
What’s going on?Right now, Pennsylvanians can apply for a mail-in ballot. You can apply all the way up until Oct. 27, a week before the election.
Those applications, which can be filed online, in person or by mail, will go to your local county election board to be processed.
That ballot must then be returned to your county election office by 8 p.m. on Election Day, whether by mail or hand-delivered by the voter. The state has already promised to pay the postage for all mail-in ballots.
This all relies on a well-functioning postal service. And as you might have been following the news, we do not have a well-functioning postal service right now.
From Pennsylvania to Maryland to Alabama, postal workers and would-be mail customers are complaining of delayed deliveries, due to a Trump-appointee’s direction to cut overtime and ban extra trips, as well as staffing and equipment shortages.
Meanwhile, Trump has been ambivalent to the issues, instead using them for leverage ahead of his re-election.
On Wednesday, he said he opposed $25 billion in aid to the post office requested by Congressional Democrats, as well as $3.6 billion in aid to states for election expenses.
“They need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on Fox Business Network.
“If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” he added. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”
He later clarified he would not veto a deal with that money, but once again, without evidence, questioned the security of mail-in voting.
“The reason the post office needs that much money is they have all of these millions of ballots coming in from nowhere and nobody knows from where and where they’re going,” Trump said.
Despite Trump’s partisan message, mail-in voting was passed by Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled General Assembly last fall, and all by two Republicans voted for it.
That’s because mail-in ballots have a bipartisan record nationally. Five states, including red Utah and blue Hawaii, already conduct all elections by mail, and report next to no voter fraud.
To turn the funding into a political weapon struck some, in particular advocates for communities of color, as a stark reminder of America’s long history of voter suppression.
“Poll taxes, ID laws, literacy tests, and other forms of intimidation have met Black people at every turn,” Andrea Custis, CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia, said in a statement. “Now, this Administration stands in the way of crucial funding for the Postal Service and state election aid, and Black people face yet another battle.”
Late mail was already the leading cause of rejected mail in ballots, according to NBC News. With Black, Latino, and Native American communities already facing less reliable service, any further impacts in recent weeks would deepen the problem.
“This latest effort to interfere with the general election is a shameless attempt to deflect from an abysmal failure of leadership on COVID, race relations and income inequality in this nation,” Thais Carrero, Director of CASA in Action in Pennsylvania said in a statement. “While it’s not surprising, it should be considered as a loud slap in the face not only to the Latinx community but all voters who are demanding change in November.”
Tight timelineBoth Gov. Tom Wolf (D-York) and county election officials see that, with widespread postal delays across the state and country and warnings of more to come from postal officials, this timeline does not work. But each has a different solution.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, a lobbying group for county governments, has been pushing since at least June for the state to push back the deadline to return a ballot to 14 days before the election.
That’ll give the postal service enough time to get a ballot to a voter, and return it to a county office, they argue.
“The seven day deadline isn’t doing voters any favors if it makes them disenfranchised by the U.S. Postal Service,” Forrest Lehman, the chief of elections in Lycoming County, said a July Senate hearing.
The postal service argued for a similar timeline in a July letter to the state, according to Philadelphia Inquirer. In fact, they argued for voters to request a ballot 15 days before the election — which is also the last day to register to vote.
That would, effectively, lock in a voter with a late registration into voting in person, potentially in the middle of a pandemic.
Seeing this, the Wolf administration had a different idea. Rather than give voters less time to apply, the administration’s attorneys asked the state Supreme Court to allow ballots that arrive up to three days late, but are postmarked on Election Day, to be counted.
“Voters who apply for mail-in ballots in the last week of the application period and return their complete ballot by mail will, through no fault of their own, likely be disenfranchised,” Wolf administration lawyers wrote in the filing.
What’s next?As of right now, there is no reason not to request a mail-in ballot, said Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam (D-Ross), who is also a member of the county’s board of elections.
It’s not just Hallam, a progressive Democrat, talking. The state Republican Party has also encouraged Republicans to vote by mail throughout the pandemic, even if its voters remain skeptical.
Mail delays reported right now aren’t likely to impact your request for a ballot. Counties cannot, by law, send a ballot to voters until Sept. 15.
“I am not as concerned about the application process or getting a ballot sent to you,” Hallam said Friday. It’s getting the ballot back to be counted amid the postal delays that worries her.
That concern is acute because of a Trump campaign lawsuit brought against the state of Pennsylvania and its counties.
The campaign, the Republican National Committee and four GOP congressmen argue that ballot drop boxes, utilized in both Republican and Democratic counties, are illegal under current law. They also want to expand the use of poll watchers, and invalidate all improperly mailed ballots.
The lawsuit is part of a wide legal offensive by the Trump campaign to restrict ballot access ahead of his re-election, according to the Washington Post, that could end up costing as much as $20 million.
Without the drop boxes, voters would have to either mail their ballot and roll the dice on delivery amid delays, or travel to their county seat and drop off a ballot at the board of elections themselves.
Hallam pointed out that, as ballots must be delivered by the voter themselves, not by a relative or friend, it could be difficult for many without a car or access to public transit.
The fate of drop boxes now rests in federal court. This week, a judge asked the Trump campaign to show its evidence of alleged voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
As negotiations continue in Washington, D.C., there is a chance that funding for the postal service could be addressed before county officials begin to send back, potentially, millions of envelopes to voters.
If that happens, however, it is completely out of the control of Pennsylvania election officials.
While the future of voting is uncertain, it’s all enough to fill a Pandora’s box of worries: Will my ballot show up? Will my vote be received in time? How will a delay in results, in a critical swing state during an intensely partisan election, impact our increasingly fragile-looking democracy?
It’s these questions that have animated the last week of mail-in coverage. And as of Friday, many election officials did not have firm answers, leading them to an uncomfortable conclusion.
“Our whole [message] has been telling people to vote by mail. First it was just because we were allowed to,” Hallam said. “Then it was ‘hey, there’s a global pandemic happening,’ and now after we spent all this time and all these resources pushing that idea, we hear that it might not actually be a safe way to do it.”
Stephen Caruso is a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.