Over 20,000 Pennsylvania voters have already signed up for PA’s brand new vote-by-mail program since the state launched their online application two weeks ago on February 14th.
Voters who sign up for a VBM ballot can begin voting in the Pennsylvania primary on March 9th—just a few days after Super Tuesday on March 3rd.
That’s significant since depending on how many people vote by mail during the 50-day early voting window before the official primary day on April 28th, the March primary polling trends could get baked into Pennsylvania’s results now to some extent.
As Wolf’s press release explains, mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are still different things, but we now have no-fault absentee voting by definition with vote-by-mail, so it’s a bit of a distinction without a difference.
Pennsylvanians who are registered to vote now have several ways to vote if they choose not to go to the polls or are unable to get to the polls on election day: mail-in ballot or absentee ballot, both of which they can vote via the mail or in person at their county election office:
- Mail-in ballots are for registered voters who simply wish to vote by mail instead of going to their polling place on election day. They do not have to give a reason or excuse. They can apply online for a mail-in ballot, or download and print the application and mail it to their county election office. Voters can also apply for and vote the ballot in person at their county election office during business hours.
- Absentee ballots are for registered voters who will be away from their home municipality on election day or who have a disability or illness that prevents them from going to the polls. Absentee voters must give a reason when they apply. Examples of absentee ballot voters include college students away at school, members of the military, people absent from their home municipality because of work or a vacation and people who cannot go to the polls because they are observing a religious holiday.
We’re still waiting for a few questions to be answered about how this will work in Philadelphia. First, how will it work if a person is trying to register to vote and request a mail-in ballot at the same time? Is there any way for first-time voters to register and request mail-in ballots in one trip to City Hall?
Second, how will election officials be releasing the list of voters who have requested vote-by-mail ballots, and turned them in? It’s been established that this will be publicly-available information. Where will that list of voters live, and how often will it be updated? This becomes an issue of intense interest for campaigns, since if there are people out there eligible to vote for them today it becomes much more important to go and talk to those people before they cast their ballots.
Third, what can we expect during the primary for the “Optional County Services” listed in Governor Wolf’s memo to county election officials? It’s short notice, but at the very least the City Commissioners should be able to offer some extended evening hours and weekend hours during the 50-day early voting window, at City Hall and the Delaware Ave annex at a minimum. But where else might the Commissioners be able to staff a few vote-by-mail drop-off stations at neighborhood libraries during the primary?
With the anxiety among election observers about how long voting will take—and how long the lines could be—with voters not yet used to voting on the new machines, the City Commissioners should be thinking about the early vote-by-mail option as an opportunity to divert a lot of Election Day traffic away from the crunch of that single day, and try to disperse it more throughout the 50-day early voting period. Every person who votes from their kitchen table is somebody who’s not standing in line on Election Day.
Voting access advocates can more fairly set high expectations for the City Commissioners to set up a lot of neighborhood polling locations during the general election than in the primary, but so far it sounds like there’s almost nothing extra being planned for the primary by the Commissioners, and there’s been no attention to this from the Mayor or City Council either. It’s a good time for people who want to see some more in-person early voting options in the primary to start making some more noise about it.
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