There are a lot of ballots moving around right now.
In the first election in which any Pennsylvania voter can use mail ballots, 2.8 million voters have requested and been approved to vote by mail. 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. Some of that language can be confusing or misleading, so here’s what you need to know:
If you’re not in the system — “We are unable to match your information with our records.” — you don’t have an approved application in the system. If you submitted your application recently, it might simply not yet have been processed and approved.
If you’re in the system with a status listed as “pending,” you’ve been approved for a mail ballot. That status changes to “vote recorded” once your ballot is returned and scanned in. So if you’re pending, you should be receiving a ballot.
If your ballot has been mailed, the “ballot mailed on” column gives the approximate date it was sent, though it could be off by a day or two, depending on the county and how it updates its records.
If your ballot hasn’t been mailed yet, the “ballot mailed on” field will be blank. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong with it — it takes time to prepare, print, and mail such a large number of ballots, and some counties are still sending out ballots that were approved weeks ago. (The list of candidates wasn’t finalized until Sept. 17, and it’s been only about three weeks that counties have been sending out most of their ballots.)
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.
When your ballot arrives, you have multiple options for how to return it.
For one, there’s still time to return your ballot by mail, especially since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered ballots to be counted if they are received by 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, and either postmarked by Election Day or have no evidence of being sent after Election Day. That means you can still drop your ballot in the mail — you don’t need a stamp — and have it arrive in time to be counted.
If you’re worried and want to know your ballot was for sure received, you can drop it off in a ballot drop box or hand-deliver it to a county elections office. Some counties have opened temporary satellite elections offices to make that drop-off even more convenient. (And some, including Philadelphia, will give you an “I voted” sticker when you do!)
If you’re concerned your ballot won’t arrive
But let’s say you’re waiting and your ballot still hasn’t arrived. Or it’s been long enough that you’re worried about it. You can contact your county elections office, but know that they are being deluged with calls and might not immediately pick up. Plus, they might not actually have that much more information for you.
So what can you do? If you think something has gone wrong, or you don’t want to wait anymore, you can go to a county elections office — including one of the satellite offices — and request a new ballot. While you’re there, you can just fill it out and submit it on the spot to prevent any future confusion if, say, your original ballot later arrives. And please don’t try to vote twice. It won’t get counted because the system will flag it.
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.
If you don’t receive your ballot at all, or lose it, you can still go to the polls to vote.
Because you requested a ballot, you won’t be allowed to use the machines, but you’ll be a given a paper provisional ballot, which is set aside and counted after elections officials confirm you didn’t vote by mail.
Just remember that if you choose either of these methods of voting in person after requesting a mail ballot, it will take longer for you to vote than for others. That could affect the flow of voters through the polling place, so just be aware of that.
And remember, no matter what you choose, the most important thing is you follow the instructions, whether filling out and returning the ballot or voting in person. If something goes wrong, other options are still available.
You can still request a ballot.
Haven’t requested a mail ballot yet? The deadline is next Tuesday, Oct. 27. You can request a ballot online here.