How to Vote by Mail at Home

This year's election will be the first of its kind, with three different ways to cast a vote, and a still unsettled legal environment, and some added public health complications due to the COVID-19 emergency. Voters have lots of good questions about how it's all going to work, so to help clear up some of the most common ones, we created this FAQ with a first pass at some answers. 

We'll keep this page updated as the situation develops, and as readers send us new questions. Please share this resource with any friends or neighbors who may have voting questions, and reach out with additional questions at [email protected].


Voting by Mail from Home


1. How do I sign up for a mail ballot? 

First, double check that you’re registered to vote, and that you’re registered at the right address. (Note: this page can take a couple minutes to load.)

Once that’s done, signing up for a mail ballot is quick and simple using the online request form:

All you need to do is put in some basic info -- name, birthday, address -- and one form of ID, like your driver's license number or SSN. 

If you aren’t living at the address where you’re registered to vote because of the pandemic or any other reason, you can change the mailing address of your ballot to the location where you’re staying. And make sure to do this when you sign-up, because mail ballots cannot be forwarded through the USPS.  


2. When can I sign up for a mail ballot? 

Technically, the deadline to request a mail ballot is October 27th. Do not wait until then! Request a mail ballot before October 5th, because it will give you plenty of time to receive and return your ballot. 

Our best guess is it could take as long as two weeks for the ballot to get to your mailbox once you’ve requested it. If you haven’t requested a mail ballot by October 16th, we recommend that you use one of the two other voting options -- voting at a Satellite Election Office (SEO), or at your polling place on Election Day -- instead of voting by mail at home. 


3. What are some common mistakes to avoid when completing my ballot? (and what’s the deal with “naked ballots”)?

Voting by mail is simple, but there are a few places where you could make a mistake and risk having your vote not counted. Take these precautions to be safe.

Fill out your mail ballot in blue or black ink. Make sure to fully fill in the bubbles. And don’t make any other stray marks on the ballot. 

Once you’ve completed your ballot, put it in the secrecy envelope and seal it. That’s the envelope that looks like this: 


Then, put the secrecy envelope inside the return envelope and seal it. That’s the envelope that looks like this: 


A ballot without both of these envelopes is what people are calling a “naked ballot” and it’s important to get this part right because naked ballots won’t be counted. 

Lastly, sign and date the envelope on the back. Sign and date the left side of the envelope if you filled out your ballot yourself. If someone helped you fill out your ballot (as in, they filled it out for you) sign on the right side, and have your helper complete all the other info on the right. 


Don’t forget your return address on the front. And don’t worry about a stamp, because the postage is already paid. 


4. Can I check the status of my mail ballot?

Yes, you can check here to see if your ballot request is still being processed or has been mailed, and after you return it, you can check to see if it has been received and counted. (Note: this page also takes a couple of minutes to load.)


5. When and where should I return my mail ballot (and how worried should I be about USPS delays)?

For this election, deciding where you’re going to return your mail ballot should be based on when you’re ready to return it. 

Technically, ballots postmarked by Tuesday, November 3rd will be counted so long as they’re received by Friday, November 6th. Considering the volume of mail ballots, the potential for postal delays, and all the other options available, we’re recommending working around these dates:  

Before October 19: All of the above. Drop it in a mailbox or at a drop box at a Satellite Election Office.

After October 20: Don’t put your ballot in the mail. Instead, drop it off at a drop box an a Satellite Election Office

Importantly, you can only drop off your own ballot at a drop ox or Satellite Election Office. You cannot drop off someone else’s ballot for them at one of these locations. 


6. What if I request a mail ballot but change my mind, and want to vote in-person on Election Day instead?

The short answer: You can do it, but it might be complicated and could create some problems. 

The longer answer: There has been a lot of confusion about whether a voter who requested a mail ballot should bring their ballot to the poll on Election Day, "spoil" it, and vote on a machine instead. The idea here is that machine votes will be counted on Election Night and won't contribute to the piles of paper ballots that need to be processed, so switching a mail vote for a machine vote should help things move more quickly and easily.

Here's how it works. Bring the entire unopened ballot package to your polling place on Election Day. There, you can hand it to the Judge of Elections, who will “spoil” the ballot. Next, you will be given a declaration to complete, which basically affirms that you haven't already cast a ballot in this election, among other things. Once you've returned the declaration, you should be able to vote on a machine like usual.

However, there are two risks associated with the mail-for-machine vote switch:

First, there's the chance that voters who attempt the switch will be denied the opportunity to vote on a machine. If you opened your mail ballot, or are missing parts of it, or your Judge of Elections is unsure that you're allowed to spoil your ballot and vote on a machine, she may require you to vote on a provisional ballot. Voting by provisional ballot is the least-certain voting option -- you're voting provisionally -- and casting a completed mail ballot is preferable to this option. So if your Judge of Elections tries to push you to vote provisionally, for whatever reason, you shouldn't vote at your polling place; instead, you should complete your mail ballot and drop it off at a drop box at a Satellite Election Office on Election Day. 

Second, the switch is a cumbersome process which will be rolled out for the first time during this election. That would be a challenge under normal circumstances, but will be even more of an issue this year, when there will be thousands of first time poll workers, many of whom didn't receive adequate training. For this reason, there is a very real chance that efforts to make the switch will create longer lines at the polls, and force people to wait inside their polling places for longer than they otherwise would. The last thing we want to happen is for the switch process to impact other voters, particularly those who don't have as much flexibility waiting in line. 


7. When will my vote be counted?

In Pennsylvania, mail votes can’t be counted until the polls close on Election Day. Unfortunately, they can’t be prepped for counting before 7am on Election Day, either. There are efforts at the state level to allow County Boards of Elections to “pre-canvass” mail ballots for counting before Election Day, which essentially means doing everything to process and sort the ballots short of scanning them.

Even though nearly everyone agrees that this change is both necessary and a good idea, it appears increasingly unlikely to happen. 

As you’re setting your expectations for how long it’s going to take to get election results for Pennsylvania, presume that it will take at least three or four days to count all the votes cast in Philadelphia. Helpfully, the City Commissioners purchased ballot sorting machinery to expedite the process, so it ought to be much quicker than the three weeks it took after primary election day.

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