Huge cuts in the number of polling places. Face masks, plastic barriers, and gloves. A massive surge in voting by mail.

Voting during this pandemic doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before.

For in-person voters, there’s the potential for long lines and confusion over polling place changes. For mail voters, there’s a tight deadline that could make it impossible to mail ballots back in time.

But there are ways to avoid problems in Tuesday’s primary election. And the better prepared you are, the less likely you are to encounter issues.

Here’s what you need to know.

If you’re voting by mail, keep a very close eye on the deadline

This is the first election under a new state law that allows any voter to vote by mail without having to provide a reason. Voting by mail is also a safe option during a public health crisis, and massive numbers of people requested mail ballots before the deadline that passed Tuesday. Officials expect most votes to be cast by mail this election.

But Pennsylvania has a very strict deadline: Mail ballots must be received by county elections officials by 8 p.m. on election night, June 2. Postmarks don’t count, and the U.S. Postal Service “recommends that voters… mail their completed ballots at least one week before the due date,” a spokesperson said.

That deadline is leading elections officials to warn that thousands of voters could be disenfranchised because they won’t receive their ballots in time to mail them back. (Already put your ballot in the mail? Check its status here.

At this point, it may be better to consider an alternative method of getting your ballot in. The city has installed a drop box by the south portal of City Hall.

Elections officials are also working with City Council to set up election day drop-off sites in each of the city’s 10 Council districts, and workers will drive “mobile drop boxes” to locations around the city this weekend to collect ballots.

Anyone who requested a mail ballot, including those who didn’t receive them in time, can vote in person on a provisional ballot

If you requested a mail ballot, regardless of whether you received it in time, you can still go to your polling place. That may be the best option if you have your ballot but didn’t receive it in time to send it back or can’t get to a drop box.

When you check in, the poll worker will flag you as having requested a mail ballot. You won’t be allowed to vote on the city’s new voting machines and will be given a paper provisional ballot, which is set aside after you fill it out.

Provisional ballots are counted once city elections officials confirm you did not also vote by mail. That prevents people from voting twice.

Voting in person? Polling places have changed

Make sure you know where you’re going. It’s probably not the place you’re used to.

Philadelphia has dramatically reduced the number of polling places it will have this election, leaving 190 polling places instead of the 831 it had last November.

Here’s a map to help you find your polling place:

City elections officials have set up a map and search tool at PollingPlaces.PhiladelphiaVotes.com.

There will be one unified check-in process per polling place

Normally, every precinct has its own poll books and check-in process, so polling places that serve multiple precincts have a set of poll workers for each precinct and separate check-in processes.

This polling place in the May 21, 2019 primary election served multiple precincts, so signs told voters in different wards and divisions where to go. This election, everyone will have one check-in.
Jonathan Lai
This polling place in the May 21, 2019 primary election served multiple precincts, so signs told voters in different wards and divisions where to go. This election, everyone will have one check-in.

This year, everyone will go through one unified check-in, with one set of poll workers per location. That means you won’t need to know your ward and division numbers.

Poll workers will be seated at a few different tables, with poll books divided alphabetically by voters’ last names. Find the right table and check in with the poll worker, then receive your blank paper ballot to feed into the voting machine.

Polling places will share one set of voting machines — normally, each precinct has separate systems — so you’ll be able to use whichever one is available first. A poll worker will set it up, and away you go.

You’ll be given a mask and gloves

The city and state are providing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for poll workers and voters.

Poll workers will be given surgical masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for their own use, along with either large plastic sneeze guards for the check-in tables or plastic face shields.

Places for voters to stand while waiting will be marked on the floor for social distancing.

Voters are urged to wear face masks, and anyone who shows up without a mask will be given one. But poll workers won’t stop you from voting if you don’t wear one, because, as City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said Tuesday, “we cannot deny any voter their right to vote based on mask usage.”

There will also be hand sanitizer available for voters and poll workers to use, and voters will be given plastic gloves to use when signing poll books and making selections on touchscreen voting machines.

Throughout the day, poll workers will clean voting machines and other high-touch surfaces. They are being given disinfecting wipes for regular surfaces, alcohol-based screen wipes for the touchscreens, microfiber cloths, and disposable headset covers for voters with disabilities to use the machines.

After the election, prepare to wait for results

Philadelphia election officials won’t begin counting mail ballots until the day after the election. The unofficial results that come in on election night will only include the votes that were cast on the voting machines that day. And remember, officials are expecting most votes to be cast by mail.

And that could take even longer in November.