How to make sure your Pennsylvania mail-in vote is counted


LEBANON, Pa. (WHTM) — In-person or by mail – it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you vote! Right? Well, mostly. There’s an important caveat: Quite simply, more things have to go right for your mail-in ballot to count.

Or put another way: Evidence from other states, which have already begun voting, suggests first-time mail-in voters face an elevated risk of having their ballots rejected. That’s a concern in Pennsylvania, where voting hasn’t yet started and which is the most populated state to recently adopt no-excuse mail-in voting. (New York, with more people, officially still requires an excuse for requesting an absentee ballot, although it now accepts fear of COVID-19 as an excuse.)

Two broad differences between in-person and mail-in voting:

  • At a polling place, workers verify your eligibility to vote, and once you’re allowed to cast a regular ballot, it will almost certainly be counted. By contrast, “when you’re voting by mail, you don’t have a person there to help you, so you do need to make sure you’re following the instructions,” said Michael Anderson, Lebanon County’s elections director.
  • In-person, Pennsylvania’s touch-screen and optical-scan machines generally will prevent you from accidentally voting for more candidates in a race than is permitted – for example, two candidates for president, which would invalidate your vote. “If you’re at home, and you vote for two, now you’ve over-voted,” Anderson explained. “And so there’s nothing that’s going to stop it, as far as allowing you to fix it. What’s going to happen is, if you vote for two, automatically when we scan it here centrally, it’s just not going to count this race,” he continued, pointing to the presidential race on a sample ballot.

Three specific requirements you must meet in Pennsylvania when filling out an optical-scan mail-in ballot:

  • Forget the trusty No. 2 pencil from your test-taking days in school. You must vote in blue or black ink. If you make a mistake, bring your ballot back to your county election office, which can provide a new one. If you can’t do that, call them; they’ll find a way to invalidate your ballot and send you a new one.
  • Your mail-in ballot comes with two envelopes. You must put your ballot in the smaller secrecy envelope, which then goes inside the larger mailing envelope.
  • On the larger envelope, you must sign your name with a signature matching the one on file at the election office; date the envelope, and write your street address.

Failure to do any of those things will probably result in your vote not being counted.

Anderson added one other important tip, although it’s not a requirement: Whichever method you prefer – in person or by mail – you’ll minimize the risk of hassle and maximize the risk of your vote being properly counted if you stick with that method. In other words, avoid requesting a mail-in ballot if you plan to vote in person, as some people seem to be doing to give themselves more options.

You can legally request a mail-in ballot and later decide to vote at a polling place, but poll workers on election day will only see your record flagged that you already have a ballot. If you don’t bring that ballot with you, they’ll have to call the central county office to try to determine whether you already returned your ballot (in which case you wouldn’t be allowed to vote on election day using a regular ballot). That time-consuming process is because Pennsylvania law doesn’t permit records at polling places to be electronically networked with central offices.

Such networking in other states, such as Florida, enables records at polling places to be updated almost instantly when an absentee ballot is received, even on election day itself, as Miami-Dade County Deputy Supervisor of Elections Suzy Trutie explained to abc27 earlier this month.

You can learn more about the mail-in voting process and register to vote right here.

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