Voting by mail is likely the safest way to cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing you to avoid polling places where you face contact with other people and touch voting machines, pens, or other materials shared with other voters and poll workers.
Elections officials have plans to disinfect machines and other objects, as well as to provide sinks for hand-washing or hand sanitizer, but for voters, absentee ballots require none of that.
Even in the best of times, some advocates and officials say more voters should use absentee ballots, which let them take time with their selections, as well as the flexibility to choose when to vote.
Now, even more people are urging their use, as it reduces the risk of coronavirus transmission.
But most voters in Pennsylvania have never done it, since a new state law for the first time allows any voter to use an absentee ballot without giving a reason. (New Jersey has had a “no-excuse” system for a while.)
Here’s what you need to know about voting by mail in either state.
What is an absentee ballot and am I eligible for one?
Absentee ballots, also known as mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are a form of voting in which a paper ballot is sent to you by mail; you then fill it out and return it.
They were originally intended to allow voters who could not go to polling places on election day to cast a vote, but there’s been a movement to allow anyone to vote by mail as a way to expand access to the ballot box.
Any registered voter in Pennsylvania or New Jersey can vote absentee.
How do I request an absentee ballot? Can I do it online?
In Pennsylvania, you can request an absentee ballot online here if you have a PennDot driver’s license or ID number. Otherwise, you’ll need to fill out a paper application — also available on that page — and mail or hand-deliver it to your county elections office, which is still open. Elections officials tend to prefer online applications, as they are easier, faster, and less prone to data-entry mistake during processing.
In New Jersey, there is no way to request a ballot online. Instead, fill and print out the application here, then mail or hand-deliver it to your county clerk’s office.
There is one exception this year in New Jersey: Local elections in March and April were postponed until May 12, to coincide with nonpartisan municipal elections, and those will be held entirely by mail. If you live in a town with an election that day, you will receive a mail-in ballot in advance, without needing to request one, and no polling places will be open.
You would still need to apply for an absentee ballot for New Jersey’s June 2 primary, which in addition to the presidential race includes a U.S. Senate seat, U.S. House seats, and special elections for state legislative seats.
What are the absentee ballot deadlines?
Pennsylvania voters have until 5 p.m. the Tuesday before an election to request an absentee ballot — May 26, in this case.
You have until 8 p.m. election day to return a completed ballot.
Note: A ballot or application must be received by county elections officials before the deadline; postmarks don’t count. Make sure to leave enough time for your ballot to be delivered.
In New Jersey, the county clerk’s office needs to get your application at least seven days before an election if you want to get a ballot by mail. You can also apply in person until 3 p.m. the day before the election.
Ballots, which come pre-stamped in New Jersey (but not Pennsylvania), must be postmarked no later than election day and received by the county no more than 48 hours after polls close.
When will I receive my absentee ballot?
Ballots are sent out within 50 days before an election in Pennsylvania, which for the primary election means sometime after April 13. In New Jersey, ballots are mailed beginning 45 days before the election.
Many counties will wait days or even weeks before sending the ballots out, though, because court challenges mean the ballot is often not finalized at that point.
What if I already received my absentee ballot, before the election was postponed?
Pennsylvania’s primary election was originally scheduled for April 28, before being moved to June 2. Some counties, after finalizing their ballots, began sending ballots out to voters.
You can still use those ballots. The state law postponing the election explicitly allows ballots for the April 28 to be used for the postponed date.
Where can I drop off a ballot?
Instead of returning your ballot by mail, you can hand-deliver your absentee ballot to your county elections office until polls close on election day.
How do I change or cancel my absentee ballot request? For example, I’m a college student who requested an absentee ballot, but now I’m not on campus.
This is a little bit murky right now in Pennsylvania, and county officials are trying to figure this out. Some say you should send them a written request, others say you should probably send in a new absentee ballot request with the new information. Montgomery County has a form specifically for changing or canceling absentee ballot requests.
Contact your county elections office to find out how it prefers to handle this request.
New Jersey state officials said the same thing: Contact your county.
Can I still vote in person if I requested an absentee ballot?
Yep! In Pennsylvania, you’ll be allowed to vote using a provisional ballot if you show up to a polling place. That allows elections officials to make sure you don’t vote twice, since absentee ballots can be turned in on Election Day. (Provisional ballots are separated from other votes on election day and are counted only after ensuring they are legitimate.)
If elections officials confirm that you did not submit an absentee ballot, your provisional ballot will be counted. If you did submit an absentee ballot, your provisional ballot will be thrown out.
Starting in November, you will be allowed to bring the absentee ballot to the polling place and hand it over to be voided, then vote normally, no provisional ballot needed.
What is the difference between an absentee and mail-in ballot?
We’ve mostly been using the term absentee ballot, but Pennsylvania law technically has two different types of mail ballot: “absentee” and “mail-in” ballots. The two are functionally identical for voters, with the same deadlines and procedures.
If you are unable to go to a polling place, under very specific circumstances, you probably qualify for an absentee ballot and are supposed to use that. Everyone else is supposed to use a mail-in ballot.
(It’s a quirk in the law because absentee ballots are part of the state constitution. Instead of going through the lengthy process of amending the state constitution, lawmakers in Harrisburg expanded absentee ballot access by creating a new category, “mail-in” ballot, which they made identical to absentee ballots.)
And don’t worry — if you get mixed up, no one can challenge your vote on the basis of your using the wrong type of ballot.
Are absentee ballots counted?
Yes. They are counted and part of the official results.
That said, some counties, such as Philadelphia, don’t always count and report them as part of their unofficial tallies on election night. That can be confusing because results may appear final even though they are missing the absentee ballots. (That’s one reason results can shift after election night.)
Of course, not every absentee ballot is counted. Some are rejected for technical reasons, such as a lack of signature.
What if I live abroad?
If you are in the military, or live overseas, (known as UOCAVA or UMOVA voters for the federal laws applying to them), you have a different ballot and application process, with later deadlines. Find out more, and request a federal absentee ballot online, from the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
Can I sign up to keep receiving absentee ballots?
In Pennsylvania, not exactly. You can sign up to keep receiving absentee ballot applications that you must fill out once a year. You will continue receiving applications every year to help ease the process.
In New Jersey, yes. You can sign up to be on a permanent absentee ballot list and be mailed an absentee ballot for every election.
How do I protect myself from the coronavirus while handling mail?
Because the virus is transmitted primarily through person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets, mail is thought to present a very low risk. You can lower that risk even further by not picking mail up directly from a carrier and by washing your hands.