Allegheny County mail-in voting, explained

Updated Oct. 27, 2020 

Given all the talk around the mail and November’s election, we thought we’d take a minute to answer a few questions about mail-in voting this year, how to get your mail-in ballot, and how to make sure it’s counted. Let’s begin.

Why is everyone talking about the mail right now? 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, mail-in voting is more popular and possible than ever in the United States. But partisan efforts to undermine the option — and warnings from the postal service itself — raised red flags about our ability to conduct an election with what is likely to be historic levels of mail-in participation. But don’t panic. Here’s what else you need to know.

How can I request a mail-in ballot?

(Update: The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot in this election has now passed.)

You can apply online, by printing and mailing in this form (aquí hay una versión en español), or by visiting the Allegheny County Elections Office between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Political parties and other groups are also sending out mail-in ballot applications, many with prepaid postage. But Wanda Murren with the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections in the commonwealth, told us the online route is preferable, adding, “it’s more accurate, we don’t have to worry about illegible handwriting, it goes right to the county elections office, and it saves ton of work for county election staff.”

What if I’m not registered to vote or unsure? 

(Update: The deadline to register to vote in this election has now passed.)

You can confirm if you’re registered here. If you’re not registered and want to vote in this election, you have until Oct. 19 to get registered. You can start that process here. And if you are registered but need to update your address, head here.

What do I do once I have my mail-in ballot?

Allegheny County’s elections office provides the following tips for doing it right:

“Fill in the oval next to a candidate’s name. You must darken the oval completely, and do not make any marks outside of the oval. Use a black or blue ballpoint pen only. Place your ballot in the secrecy envelope, and then put the secrecy envelope into the official envelope. Be sure to sign the form or your ballot may not count.”

What’s a secrecy envelope? It’s an envelope meant to safeguard voter privacy that arrives with your mail-in ballot. More importantly, your mail-in ballot must be sealed inside it — and then the larger prepaid envelope — when it’s returned. The secrecy envelope is not labeled as such. Instead, it reads “Official Election Ballot.”

Without the secrecy envelope your mail ballot is considered a “naked ballot” and vote counters will have to reject it. Here’s more on how that works.

What if my secrecy envelope is damaged or I reopen it to double check my ballot? 

Allegheny County officials say a ballot in a damaged or unsealed secrecy envelope would be open to challenge and that a voter in this situation should contact the county’s elections office at (412) 350-4500 so new envelopes can be sent out. 

Once I have my mail-in ballot filled out, how do I turn it in? 

(Update: With less than a week left before Election Day, state officials are now urging voters to hand-deliver their mail-in ballot to their local election office or mail-in ballot drop-box. More on how to do that in Allegheny County below.)

Mail it back in the envelope provided — postage will be prepaid in Pennsylvania. You can also personally deliver it to a handful of locations around Allegheny County. (More on that below.)

What are the deadlines? 

A court ruling on Thursday, Sept. 17 cleared the way for counties to begin printing and sending out requested mail-in ballots after a days-long delay.

Your mail-in ballot will now be counted as long as it’s postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day and delivered by the postal service before 5 p.m. on Nov. 6. If you plan to hand-deliver it to your local election officials, you need to do so before 8 p.m. on Election Day. (Keep scrolling for more on that.)

But it’s still important to request yours and turn it in ASAP. The sooner you get all of this handled the better — especially this year.

My ballot has a different deadline? Is it wrong? 

Allegheny County mail ballots were printed before a state court extended the deadline for those ballots to be returned and counted. That means they still have the old, earlier deadline printed on them. The deadline information above remains correct under that ruling.

How can I be sure my mail-in ballot is counted? 

Provide your email address on your ballot and/or ballot application and you should receive an email confirming that either was received. If you don’t get confirmation, contact the PA Department of State at ra-voterreg@pa.gov or by calling 1-877-VOTESPA. You can also check the status of your ballot here.

Will the polls be open on Election Day? 

Yes. Allegheny County officials plan to open all 1,323 polling places on Nov. 3, and they’re recruiting thousands of poll workers.

Can you change your mind and vote in person at the polls on Election Day after receiving a mail-in ballot? 

Yes, but advocates say only if you must. And that’s because your mail-in ballot will need to be spoiled — read: nullified — by an election worker first. And with long lines possible at the polls on Election Day, we’ll want to make less work for them, not more.

If it’s necessary for you to go this route, here’s what you’ll do: Take your ballot, the secrecy envelope, and the larger prepaid envelope to your polling place. An elections official will “spoil” the ballot so it can’t be used and then you’ll be allowed to vote in person. Here’s more from WTAE.

Mail-in voting without the mail?

In Allegheny County, completed mail-in ballots can be dropped off at the County Office Building at 542 Forbes Ave. Downtown between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day. Find more Allegheny County-specific information here.

Countywide satellite offices for mail-in ballot drop-offs and “over-the-counter” voting are now closed.

The county added those satellite offices after a September ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which allowed counties to use drop boxes and satellite offices for personal delivery of mail-in ballots — something President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and others have tried to prevent.

For the record, there is no evidence of widespread mail-in voting fraud. But that hasn’t stopped partisan attempts to undermine the option in the run-up to November.

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