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Pennsylvania’s election rules are finally set (almost)

With less than two weeks until Election Day, the rules are pretty much set. It can be hard to keep track of everything going on, so here’s a rundown.

Voters line up outside City Hall in Philadelphia on Monday to drop off their mail ballots.
Voters line up outside City Hall in Philadelphia on Monday to drop off their mail ballots.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

To cover how Pennsylvania is shaping the 2020 election, The Philadelphia Inquirer has launched a new email newsletter. Every Wednesday, you’ll get reporting from counties across the state, insight into issues that impact you, fact checks on what candidates are saying, and more. You can sign up to get it in your inbox here. You can also view the web version of this email.

The parade of presidential candidates and their supporters continues this week with former President Barack Obama doing his first in-person campaign appearance anywhere of 2020 at Citizens Bank Park in Philly. He’ll greet supporters at a drive-in rally where he’s expected to talk about the importance of voting early, and to specifically address Black men, whose turnout could be critical.

The deadline to register to vote has come and gone, but you can still request a mail ballot until next Tuesday. Almost 3 million Pennsylvanians have requested them, and more than 1 million have returned them so far, putting the state — along with the country — on track for what could be historic turnout levels.

And we’ll update you on the status of legal battles over voting rules, and follow the money to take a look at which congressional races in the state are most competitive.Follow all our election coverage. And email us at

— Julia Terruso, Andrew Seidman (@JuliaTerruso, @AndrewSeidman

Finally, something resembling clarity

Not even a month ago, we still didn’t know the rules for the 2020 election, with lawsuits and legislative wrangling creating deep uncertainty in our closely watched battleground state.

Now, with less than two weeks until Election Day, the rules are pretty much set. It can be hard to keep track of everything going on, so here’s a rundown.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively allowed Pennsylvania to count mail ballots received by election officials up to three days after Election Day, even if they don’t have a clear postmark. The justices split 4 to 4 on whether to block or uphold a state Supreme Court ruling to that effect, leaving the state court’s decision in place.

Democrats celebrated that, but were less pleased with developments in Harrisburg. Leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature said Monday that they would not change state law to allow counties to start tabulating mail ballots before Election Day. House Republicans — who had insisted that any such change be coupled with measures pushed by President Donald Trump’s campaign, like banning drop boxes to collect mail ballots — said Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, “has not put anything on the table that can get through our caucus.”

Election administrators from both parties have urged lawmakers to allow for what’s called “pre-canvassing” of mail ballots, so that they can be counted faster and voters don’t have to wait days to find out who won. But that issue now appears to be, as Wolf put it, “dead.” The counting of mail ballots won’t start until polls open on Nov. 3. The state’s top elections official assured voters this week that almost all those ballots could be counted by the end of that Friday.

There are still a couple pending legal matters.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering whether elections officials can throw out mail ballots on which voters' signatures do not appear to match the signature they provided when they registered. (If you’re worried your signature on file with the Department of State is no longer accurate, you can contact your county elections office to update it.)

The Trump campaign and GOP groups are pushing for stringent signature analysis. Democrats are voting by mail in greater numbers — they make up almost two-thirds of the ballot requests so far — so their votes would almost surely be more likely to get tossed if the court decides that so-called signature mismatch is grounds to contest a ballot.

And Trump’s campaign has said it will appeal a federal judge’s decision this month that permitted the use of drop boxes. It has argued drop boxes posed a threat to election security, but the judge in Pittsburgh, a Trump appointee, found the campaign had failed to prove a serious threat of fraud. Democrats and voting rights advocates have said drop boxes provide a safe means of returning ballots during a pandemic.

So for the most part, the rules are set. That said, lawyers in both parties are preparing for a potential flurry of litigation on or after Election Day in Pennsylvania. But that’s another story.

Thirteen days.

What to do if you haven’t received your ballot yet

While many voters have already received their ballots and submitted their votes, others have been left worrying: Has my ballot been lost? Did I miss something up in my application? Will I have time to vote with it?

Breathe. You’ve got options.

Look up your status

The first thing to do is look up your record in the Pennsylvania Department of State’s online ballot tracker.

If your ballot hasn’t been mailed, it should be on its way soon.

But ballots aren’t always printed and mailed in the order you might think, which means sometimes one voter will receive a ballot while a family member in the same household, who applied at the same time or even earlier, hasn’t been sent a ballot yet. If you included your email address when you applied for your ballot, you should receive an email notification around the time your ballot is mailed out.

If your “ballot mailed on” field has a date in it, it should arrive within a few days.

While mail delivery delays have been a concern, counties haven’t reported the kinds of delays they experienced in the primary in June. Ballots appear to be arriving fairly quickly. That said, the Department of State says to give counties 10 to 14 days.

If you’ve decided you’d rather vote in person, you still have the right to do that, too.

If you end up receiving your ballot, you can bring it with you to your polling place and turn over your ballot and return envelope to be voided. After signing a form declaring you haven’t voted by mail, you’ll be allowed to vote on the machines like everyone else.

We’ve got lots more on this subject: What to do if you haven’t received your mail ballot yet in Pennsylvania

— Jonathan Lai (@Elaijuh)

What we’re paying attention to

Overheard on the campaign trail

“He’s a really good con and some people will let him con them.”

— Elaine Caruso, of Northeast Pennsylvania, who voted for Trump in 2016 but is backing Biden, one of a growing number of women ditching Trump in the state.

Following the money: Congressional races edition

A review of campaign advertising spending suggests there are really only two highly competitive congressional races in Pennsylvania.

The parties are pouring the most money into the 10th District in the south-central part of the state, where Republican Rep. Scott Perry is facing a challenge from Democrat Eugene DePasquale, the state auditor general. Since Sept. 1, the campaigns and outside groups have spent a total of $6.8 million on television and radio advertising, according to the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

That’s more than the total combined advertising budget in the Lehigh Valley-based 7th District and the Northeastern Pennsylvania-based 8th District, where campaigns and outside groups have spent $6.4 million over the same time period. At the outset of the campaign, Republicans thought they had a shot at flipping those Democratic-held seats. That’s not looking very likely right now, as Democrats lead in the polls and are outspending their rivals.

The second battleground is in the Bucks County-based 1st District, where Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is seeking another term against Democrat Christina Finello. TV and radio advertising there has totaled $5.3 million since Sept. 1, with the GOP holding a big edge.

The Western Pennsylvania-based 17th District, where Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb is running against Republican Sean Parnell, is also attracting less ad spending than might have been expected. Democrats have spent $1.8 million there since Sept. 1, double the GOP budget.

Other resources

  1. Check your Pennsylvania voter registration []

  2. Everything you need to know about voting by mail and in person

  3. Upcoming campaign stops in Pennsylvania and other things to watch:
    -Barack Obama in Philadelphia today
    -Karen Pence in Lancaster County today
    -The final presidential debate tomorrow
    -Bernie Sanders somewhere in the state on Saturday