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Pa. Voter Guide: May 18, 2021

From who’s on your ballot, to what to know about voting by mail.

Mark your calendars — it’s time for another election.

May 18 is Pennsylvania’s municipal primary, when registered voters across the state will cast ballots for their party’s favored candidates to run in November’s general election.

In Philadelphia, voters will pick their party nominee for district attorney, city controller, and a slew of judicial seats. There are also plenty of local races to decide in Philly’s collar counties. Additionally, Pennsylvania voters will find four ballot questions.

Voter turnout tends to dip during odd-numbered election years and is especially low during municipal elections when there isn’t a mayoral or City Council race, said Patrick Christmas, policy director at the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonpartisan good-government group. That doesn’t mean they’re not as important.

“This is one of those really challenging years where turnout drops off,” he said. “We want as many folks to get out there and weigh in on these things as they possibly can, because those offices matter a great deal.”

Here’s what to know about May’s primary election and how to make your voice heard, whether you’re planning to vote in person or by mail.

Why should I vote?

Simply put, participating in the bedrock of American democracy makes the country better. It may be a choice, but voting is also a civic duty that carries great responsibility and shapes the future for generations to come.

Voters in Pennsylvania aren’t casting ballots for president on May 18, but the upcoming primary is a chance to directly affect criminal justice in the region with district attorneys and plenty of judicial seats on the ballot.

Plus, the more people that vote, the more elected offices start to actually look like the communities they represent. The voters are the boss — and the way to give politicians and local officials direction is by using your ballot.

How do I check my registration status?

💻 You can check your voter registration status on the state’s website by entering your name, license number, or PennDOT ID.

☎️ You can also call 1-877-VOTESPA or your county’s election officials.

Remember these dates
May 3: Deadline to register to vote

May 11, 5 p.m.: Last day to request mail ballots

May 18: Primary election

May 18, 8 p.m.: Deadline to return mail ballots

Nov. 3: General election

Does party matter?

Because Pennsylvania is a closed primary state, voters can only cast ballots for candidates affiliated with their registered party. However, every voter can vote on the ballot questions, no matter whether they’re Republican, Democrat, third party, or unaffiliated.

When is the election?

📅 The municipal primary election will be held May 18.

When are polls open?

🕖 Polls are open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on May 18, election day. As long as you make it in line by 8 p.m., you’ll be able to vote.

Where is my polling place?

💻 If you’re planning to vote in person on May 18, you can find your polling place on the Department of State’s website, where you’ll need to enter your county, city, and street. Philadelphia also has its own lookup tool.

We encourage you to check your polling place before heading out to vote, as it may not be the same one you’ve used in the past.

☎️ You can also call your county’s elections officials. A list of phone numbers can be found on the Department of State’s website.

When and how do I return my mail ballot?

📅 Completed ballots have to be received by your county elections office by 8 p.m. on May 18.

✉️ You can send your ballot back to their county’s election officials by mail. Note: If you mail your ballot, it still has to be received by May 18. Postmarks don’t count.

🚶 You can also hand-deliver ballots to your county elections office. Philly voters can also head to the County Board of Elections office in City Hall (room 140), request a mail ballot there, fill it out, and hand it back on the spot.

📮 In Philadelphia, there are also 14 drop boxes across the city where you can return your mail ballot.

Do I have to do anything special before dropping off my mail ballot?

Yes. It is very important that you seal your ballot in the smaller inner “secrecy envelope” (it says “Official Election Ballot.”) Put that envelope in the outer return envelope and make sure to sign and date the voter’s declaration.

What is a naked ballot?

If you’re going the mail route, it will be important to make sure you’re sending the ballot back properly. A naked ballot is a mail ballot that a voter submits without an inner “secrecy envelope.”

Pennsylvania uses a two-envelope system: Filled-out ballots go first inside a blank, anonymous secrecy envelope, and then into the return envelope that is addressed to the county elections office and has the voter’s signature and information. If voters place the ballot directly into the return envelope, it’s “naked.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that naked ballots must be rejected under state law, meaning those votes will not be counted.

How do I check the status of my ballot?

💻 You can check on the status of your mail ballot on the Department of State’s website by entering your name, date of birth, and county.

Who’s on the ballot in Philadelphia?

District Attorney (choose one)

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania.


City Controller (choose one)

The City Controller is the city’s chief auditor and performs duties independently of the mayor and city council.

  1. Rebecca Rhynhart (uncontested)

  1. There is no Republican candidate on the ballot

Justice of the Supreme Court (choose one)

Pennsylvania’s highest court. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is made up of seven members.

  1. Paula Patrick

  2. Kevin Brobson

  3. Patricia A. McCullough

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania elects most judges. Here's how the process works.

Judge of the Superior Court (choose one)

The Superior and Commonwealth Courts are the state’s intermediary appellate courts — hearing the first appeals of cases before they can be appealed to the Supreme Court — and hear thousands of cases a year. There are 15 Superior Court judges.


Judge of the Commonwealth Court (vote for up to two)

In addition to hearing appeals from lower courts, the Commonwealth Court is also usually responsible for hearing appeals or, in some cases, the trials involving state government and elections. There are nine Commonwealth Court judges.


Judge of the Court of Common Pleas (vote for up to eight)

The Court of Common Pleas handles major civil and criminal cases as the trial court of general jurisdiction for a county (or, in a few cases, two counties).

  1. There is no Republican candidate on the ballot

Judge of the Municipal Court (vote for up to three)

More than 500 judges preside over entry-level courts across the state, known as Municipal Court in Philadelphia. They handle minor civil and criminal cases.

  1. There is no Republican candidate on the ballot

Judge of Election and Inspector of Election

In Pennsylvania, the three main poll workers in a precinct — the judge of elections, a majority-party inspector, and a minority-party inspector — are elected every four years.

  1. There are hundreds of Democratic candidates for judge and inspector of elections, and they differ based on your ward and division. Find your candidates in the below document.

  1. There are dozens of Republican candidates for judge and inspector of elections, and they differ based on your ward and division. Find your candidates in the below document.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania had more poll workers than it could handle last year. Where’d they go?

What will my ballot look like?

This is the sample ballot you’ll receive if you vote by mail:

And this is the sample ballot you’ll see at the polls:

Who’s on the ballot in Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks Counties?

There are lots of local races happening in Philadelphia’s collar counties. In addition to statewide races and ballot questions, here are the races that voters in Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks Counties will have to consider, according to the Committee of Seventy.

Chester County: Treasurer, controller, clerk of courts, coroner, common pleas court, magisterial district court, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Sample ballots can be found on Chester County’s website.

Delaware County: County council, sheriff, controller, register of wills, common pleas court, magisterial district courts, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Sample ballots can be found on Delaware County’s website.

Montgomery County: Court of common pleas, magisterial district court, jury commissioner, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Sample ballots can be found on Montgomery County’s website.

Bucks County: District attorney, sheriff, prothonotary, recorder of deeds, controller, court of common pleas, magisterial district court, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. More information can be found on Bucks County’s website.

What do I need to know about the races in Philadelphia?

The contested Democratic primary race for district attorney will be one to watch.

District Attorney Larry Krasner, the progressive longtime civil rights and defense lawyer, faces former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, who worked in the DA’s office for more than three decades before Krasner fired him and dozens of others after taking office in 2018.

Since then, Krasner has grown a national profile as a liberal reformer fighting the “tough-on-crime policies of the past.” He’s clashed with Philadelphia’s police union, and received criticism from some who blame Krasner for the city’s rise in gun violence.

Vega, a vocal critic of Krasner, is pitching himself as a reform-minded candidate for “a safer, fairer Philadelphia.” He’s been criticized for downplaying his role in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, a Philadelphia man wrongly convicted for a 1991 rape and murder. With the help of DNA evidence, Wright was freed after 25 years in custody.

“There’s an enormous focus on our criminal justice system across the country right now, and very much in Philly, this has been the case for some time,” said Christmas, of the Committee of Seventy. “And, this debate is played out in a big way in the Democratic primary.”

Elsewhere on the ballot, Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is running unopposed, and cruising to a near-certain November win — and perhaps even a mayoral bid in the not-so-distant future.

While the rest of the ballot may not look quite as familiar — and may even be overwhelming to take in — the judicial races “are among the most important offices and candidates” up for consideration, Christmas said. The Inquirer’s guide to the basics, like how judges are chosen and how much they make, could help demystify the process.

Are there any ballot questions?

Philadelphia voters will find five questions on their ballot — the first four are statewide questions, and the remaining is a proposed change to the city’s charter.

The two statewide questions concerning disaster declarations — like the one Pennsylvania is under because of the COVID-19 pandemichave received some pushback from most Democrats, according to Spotlight PA. The other two “are about as non-controversial as possible,” Spotlight PA writes in a guide to Pennsylvania’s 2021 primary ballot questions.

Question 1, Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1

Termination or Extension of Disaster Emergency Declarations

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?

Voting “yes” on question No. 1 would let a majority of lawmakers end a disaster declaration at any time without needing a green light from the governor. Right now, only the governor has that kind of power.

Question 2, Proposed Constitutional Amendment 2

Disaster Emergency Declaration and Management

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?

Voting “yes” on question No. 2 would shorten disaster declarations to 21 days, and any extension would need legislative approval. Right now, disaster declarations last 90 days and can be continuously renewed by the governor.

Question 3, Proposed Constitutional Amendment 3

Prohibition Against Denial or Abridgement of Equality of Rights Because of Race or Ethnicity

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?

Voting “yes” on question No. 3 would bolster Pennsylvanians’ protections against racial and ethnic discrimination.

Question 4, Statewide Referendum

Making Municipal Fire and Emergency Medical Services Companies Eligible for Loans

Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?

Voting “yes” on question No. 4 would give municipal fire and emergency services companies the ability to apply for loans through an existing state program for volunteer fire companies.

Question 5, Proposed Charter Change (Philadelphia only)

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to provide for an expanded Board of License Inspection Review that can hear and decide cases in three-member panels?

Voting “yes” on question No. 5 would expand the Board of License and Inspection Review, which oversees appeals concerning licenses to carry firearms as well as Department of Licenses and Inspections-issued violations.

What happens next?

The winning candidates of each party will go on to face the winning candidates of the opposing party — and any third-party or independent candidates — in the general election on Nov. 2.

This article contains information from the Department of State, Philadelphia Commissioners Office, and the Committee of Seventy. Staff writers Jonathan Lai, Andrew Seidman, and Chris Brennan contributed reporting.