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.


Oct. 19 is the last day to register before the Nov. 3 presidential election. Applications for mail-in or absentee ballots must be received by the Lancaster County Board of Elections by 5 p.m. Oct. 27. Information on registering to vote and applying for a mail-in ballot may be found at votespa.com.

According to American tradition, Labor Day marks the official start of the campaign season.

Election Day now is just 58 days away.

So steel yourselves for the torrent of campaign advertisements, the intensifying political arguments, the battling yard signs, the endless and not-always-illuminating punditry.

Presidential election seasons always run at a fever pitch, and while the campaigning may look different this time around because of the pandemic, the high-stakes nature of this election means temperatures will be running high.

So enjoy this long weekend before the madness begins. And if you haven’t done so already, make sure to plan how you intend to cast your ballots, because mail-in ballots will begin to be mailed late this month to voters who request them.

We have written previously about changes that Lancaster County elections officials would like to see lawmakers make to election procedures before Nov. 3.

The state House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would make some of those changes. As Spotlight PA reported, the House bill would “allow counties to begin processing absentee and mail ballots three days before polls open.” That, at least, is welcome news for county elections officials who are expecting a deluge of mailed ballots.

The state Senate is working on a similar bill. Both bills would shorten the deadline for applying for mail-in ballots. According to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Gov. Tom Wolf has indicated he would veto any bill that gives voters less time to request mail-in ballots. We hope this can be resolved to the benefit of both elections officials and voters.

Randall O. Wenger, Lancaster County’s chief elections official, said that as of Tuesday, his office had approved 63,810 applications for mail-in ballots for the general election. He said 120,000 mailed ballots was a good estimate for what his office might receive by Election Day, but he added, “I would not be shocked to see it become more than that.”

Integrity safeguards

Despite what you may have read or heard, mail-in voting is very safe, and the risk of fraud in the process is “infinitesimally small,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In most states, including Pennsylvania, a voter has to request a mail-in ballot, using his or her valid driver’s license or Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ID if applying online. A valid ID is also required if applying in person at the Lancaster County Board of Elections and Registration Commission at 150 N. Queen St. in downtown Lancaster.

As Diane Skilling, Lancaster County’s deputy chief clerk of elections, explained in an email Friday, “A voted ballot should be returned in its secrecy envelope, which is then placed in the return envelope. The return envelope must be signed by the voter. All signatures are verified against the individual voter’s record.”

Skilling said that if “a return envelope is received without a signature, we make every effort to contact the voter hoping to obtain their signature.”

But other Pennsylvania elections officials have been accused of being too persnickety during the signature verification process. (A federal lawsuit has been filed over ballots that were rejected because of signature issues without allowing the voters involved to resolve those issues.)

Another security safeguard: Every ballot contains a nonsequential, “non-human-readable, unique ballot identifier,” Skilling said.

This is meant to ensure, she explained, “that the same ballot could never be read through a scanner more than one time.”

Additionally, she said, “Every absentee and mail-in return envelope has a bar code on the reverse side of the envelope located above where the voter signs. That bar code is a correspondence ID bar code, which links to a particular correspondence for a particular voter.”

University of Michigan political scientist Edie Goldenberg wrote on the website The Conversation that she and other members of a National Academy of Public Administration working group reviewed evidence that “finds that voting by mail is rarely subject to fraud, does not give an advantage to one political party over another and can in fact inspire public confidence in the voting process, if done properly.”

No difference

Another important note: There is no difference in the way that mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are processed in Pennsylvania. Indeed, they are pretty much the same thing, except that the absentee ballot is meant for voters who will be away from their voting districts on Election Day (like deployed members of the military).

“You request a ballot, you get a ballot, you vote, you send it in, and there are protections in place,” said David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “It doesn’t matter whether you call it mail voting or absentee voting.”

A change last year in Pennsylvania election law has enabled all registered voters to apply for a mail-in ballot without needing any excuse, and we’re grateful for that reform, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vote just once

But mail-in voting is just an option. As we pointed out in July, only five states hold elections entirely by mail — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Pennsylvania, voters can still choose to go to the polls.

Voters cannot, however, do both.

In North Carolina last week, President Donald Trump suggested that voters test the electoral system this way: “Let them send (their voted ballots) in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.”

Officials in that state were quick to respond (as was Fox News anchor Dana Perino, who warned against such a strategy).

“It is illegal to vote twice in an election,” Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said in a statement, noting that it is a felony. “Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.”

She noted that there are in checks in place in North Carolina that prevent people from double voting. There are in Pennsylvania, too.

If you apply for a mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania and provide your email address, you will receive notifications through the application and voting process.

Attempting to check, at your polling place on Election Day, that your mail-in vote has been counted is unnecessary — and will just create more headaches for poll workers, who will have their hands full as it is.

The next two months may seem akin to a derecho, the term many of us learned earlier this summer for a line of thunderstorms that bring intensely high winds and battering rains.

Participating in our democracy, however we decide to do it, is how we ensure that this house — divided as it may seem against itself — doesn’t fall.