2020 primary mail in ballots

In this file photo, thousands of mail-in ballots sit in the Lancaster County Board of Elections office waiting to be counted in the June 2, 2020 primary. County elections officials expect some 120,000 Lancaster County residents (possibly more) to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision issued in September clears the way for counties to finalize their ballots and begin distributing mail-in copies to voters who requested them.

The court case involved the Green Party’s presidential candidate, whose name will not appear on the ballot because, the court said, he did not fulfill the state’s rules for qualifying.

The court’s decision also extended the deadline for county elections offices to receive mail-in ballots. These votes will be counted as long as the Postal Service delivers them by Friday, Nov. 6 -- as long as the ballots are postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3. (Previously, ballots had to be received by no later than 8 p.m. on election night).

Finally, the court ruled that counties can deploy secure ballot boxes that voters can access outside of normal business hours. Lancaster County has not made a decision about whether drop boxes will be installed. Randall Wenger, the county’s chief of elections, said that will be discussed at a Sept. 23 Board of Elections meeting.

Lancaster plans to add 30 elections staff for 2020 election, as Pa. Legislature nears deal on elections law fixes

Wenger said the county plans to send out its first batch of mail-in ballots before the end of September so voters receive them in the first week of October. That first batch, which includes mail-in and absentee ballot requests already processed, will total some 80,000 ballots, Wenger said.

Worried your mail-in ballot could arrive late? Here's what our test of Lancaster County's postal system found [video]

With voting beginning soon, here’s what you need to know:

What’s the deadline to register to vote? 

If you’re not already registered to vote, there’s an important deadline to keep in mind -- October 19, the last day a Pennsylvania resident can register.

Registering is easy, and elections officials at the state and county levels are encouraging people to start that process as soon as possible. It’s a presidential election year, which means elections offices around the state are extra busy. Plus, coronavirus concerns are expected to result in many more people voting by mail, which increases the workload for the people who run our elections.

How do I register?

Register online at www.VotesPA.com. If you don’t have access to a computer, you can register in person at your county election office, at a PennDOT service center, at an armed forces recruiting office, or many other government offices. You can also request that an application be mailed to you by calling the Department of State’s information line at 877-868-3772

If you’re not sure you’re registered, you can check your status at the same website, which is operated by the Department of State.

What’s the deadline for applying for a mail-in ballot? 

Another important date to circle on your calendar is October 27, which is the deadline for applying for a mail-in ballot. The request must be received by your county elections office by that date.

Thanks to a new law passed in 2019, Pennsylvanians don’t need an excuse to request a mail-in ballot. Applying is easy -- again, via VotesPA.com -- and you can opt into voting by mail in all future elections, or just this fall’s election.

When is Election Day, and when are the polls open?

Voting in person begins at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, November 3. Polls close 13 hours later at 8 p.m. 

How can I find my polling place? 

If your regular polling place is moved, the county elections office will notify you of the new location; it’s also posted online here. If you still have questions about where your polling site is, call the Lancaster County Elections Office at 717-299-8293 during regular office hours (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday).

How do I turn in my mail-in ballot, and when?

Mail-in ballots must be received by your county elections office Friday, Nov. 6 -- and they must be postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day (Nov. 3). 

If you plan to mail your ballot, we recommend putting it in the mail at least 7 days before Election Day. Our reporters tested mail delivery in Lancaster County in September. They found that most intra-county mail arrives within 4 days, but some envelopes took a full week.

You can also drop your ballot off at the county elections office at 150 N. Queen St. in Lancaster. The office is Suite 117 (enter through the Chestnut Street entrance) and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day. And keep in mind: Only you can drop your ballot off, so don’t plan to hand deliver all the ballots from your household or even your neighbors or other family members.

What if I change my mind on the mail-in ballot? Can I still vote in person? 

Yes. If you request a mail-in ballot but it doesn’t arrive before Election Day, or you don’t think it will arrive in time if you mail it in the last days before November 3, you can still vote in-person. Bring your ballot with the return envelope to your polling location and ask to cast a regular ballot. If you do not have your ballot, you may vote provisionally at your regular polling station.

Can I cast a straight-ticket ballot this year? 

No. Another change to your ballot this year is the end of straight-ticket voting. Ballots will no longer include a box allowing a voter to select all of one party’s candidates with one mark. This means you will need to go through each race on the ballot and make a selection.

Can I vote early? 

While Pennsylvania doesn’t have the kind of early voting option available in states like Florida and Minnesota, the same 2019 election reform law that made it easier to vote by mail also created an in-person early voting option. If you haven’t yet requested a mail-in ballot, you can go to your county elections office and apply in person. You will receive a paper ballot that you can fill out and submit in-person immediately. 

In Lancaster County, this option will be available after Oct. 5. Randal Wenger, the county’s elections chief, encouraged people who already applied for a mail-in ballot to be patient and wait for it to be delivered by mail.