Voting in Philly this year? Here’s what to expect navigating the general election

Written by on November 2, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat


This year’s global health crisis has dramatically changed what voting will look like on Election Day. Despite the obstacles widespread social distancing measures have placed in the way, city officials are still urging voters to exercise their right to vote, in whatever form that may be.

Voting in Philadelphia is really a social occasion,” said Kevin Feeley, Philadelphia City Commissioners spokesperson.Your neighbors are there. The poll workers most times are people you know or people who live in your community. And we urge that same spirit [on Tuesday].” 


How many Philadelphians have voted by mail?

There’s been a surge in mail-in voting since the 2020 primaries, and that surge has only continued to grow as we move into Election Day.

According to Marian Schneider of  ACLU Pennsylvania, 2.4 million Pennsylvanians — 26% of registered Pennsylvania voters — have already turned in their mail-in ballots. 

As of October 30, Feeley says, 325,000 Philadelphians already cast their ballot by mail. These numbers will most likely grow as incoming ballots continue to arrive through Election Day, meaning in-person voting lines might not be as long as they are during a typical election cycle. 

But the city still anticipates a high in-person voter turnout.

“We expect a lot of people to turn out,” said Feeley. “The city is planning to run a fair, open, and accurate election and to do so in a way that takes into account the need for social distancing and the need for people to be safe.”


How will mail-in ballots be processed in Philadelphia?

Philadelphia County will begin a process of pre-canvasing mail-in ballots by checking the declarations on the outside of the ballot envelopes and confirming that they match the information they have on file. 

“If that’s all good, they will proceed to opening the ballots and separating [them] out so they can be scanned,” said Schneider.  “Almost every county will be scanning their [mail-in] ballots and in Philadelphia they have what’s called high-speed scanners so those will be [used].”

Schneider stressed the importance of giving every election official the time they need so that every ballot cast is accounted for. Errors on the declaration, which is located on the outer envelope, could result in some votes not being counted, she noted. 

Philadelphia’s election officers can begin processing mail-in ballots as early as 7 AM on Election Day, but they are not required to do so.


What safety precautions will be in place for in-person voters on Tuesday?

Philadelphians planning to vote in-person are required to wear masks at their pollings locations, and masks will be provided upon arrival if they do not have one. In-person voters will also be asked to maintain social distance while waiting in line and once inside the polling location.

“Voters will be given a plastic, [disposable] glove to record their votes on the machine,” Feeley noted. “And periodically the machines will be wiped down to ensure the safety of all those who are both voting or working at the polls tomorrow.”

To find your voting location, you can visit the Pennsylvania Voter Information website here.


I want to vote in-person on Election Day but I already requested a mail-in ballot. What do I do?

If you have a mail-in ballot but now you want to vote in-person and you have yet to return your mail-in ballot, you can  bring your  ballot with you to your polling location on Election Day. It’s important to ensure that you bring the outer return envelope with you as well. The Judge of Elections at your location will void your mail-in ballot and you’ll be able to vote normally on a machine.

For more information on this, click here


I requested a mail-in ballot but I did not receive it yet. Can I vote in-person on Election Day?

Absolutely. On the day of the election, report to your local polling location and you’ll be able to cast your vote using what’s called a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot is used to record a vote when there are questions about a given voter’s eligibility that must be resolved before the vote can count. If you vote using this method, the polling location will confirm whether your mail-in ballot never arrived and your provisional ballot will be counted.

The county board of elections must review and make a determination on the disposition of

each provisional ballot within 7 days of the election.

On Tuesday of Election Day you can also vote at your County Board of Elections office.  There you’ll be provided with  a new mail-in ballot if you have yet to receive it in the mail. Be aware that there may be long lines.


How suppression of mail-in ballots may impact voters of color

The national ACLU recently identified Philadelphia as one of the 6 major cities that could potentially experience large racial representation gaps in the election if mail-in ballots are not counted  appropriately. The other cities  include Detroit, Milwaukee, Madison, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta. 

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Analysis, Black voters in Pennsylvania made up a 10% share (one million) of eligible voters. For Hispanic and Asian voters, that share was 5% (521,000)  and 2% (233,000) respectively.

 In 2020, the majority of Black eligible voters are  concentrated in Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and Harrisburg. And as a growing segment of this population is choosing to vote by mail this year, voters of color will be especially critical to the election.

“Failing to fully count the absentee votes in the counties that are home to these metro areas would mean disregarding between 32.9 percent (in Gwinnett County, Georgia) and 61.4 percent (in Washtenaw County, Michigan) of the votes of people of color”, wrote Lucia Tian and Ben Fifield in the ACLU analysis.

Schneider of ACLU Pennsylvania said we won’t know if there is any racial disparity in the way ballots are counted until after they have all been processed. 


I’m disabled and need assistance casting my vote on Election Day. Can someone accompany me to the polling place?

Every voter is entitled to have a person that they choose to assist them at the polls.

This is especially important for voters with disabilities, voters with limited English proficiency [who] may need assistance with interpretation,” ACLU Pennsylvanina consultant said. 

If you’re 65 years of age or older or disabled, you can have a designated person in the polling place and in the voting booth with you. If this will be your first time having someone assist you at the polls, you will need to sign a form called Declaration of Need of Assistance.

Every polling place in Pennsylvania is required to have at least one accessible voting system. For more information on in-person accessibility concerns, click here.


Make a voting plan & exercise your right to vote

The Philadelphia City Commisoner’s Office is urging all voters to make a voting plan and to remain flexible throughout the process. Voters planning to cast their ballot in person should know that as long as you’re in line to vote by 8 PM your vote will indeed be counted. 

Residents who are made aware of voter intimidation activity at the polls or elsewhere are being directed to report claims to the Election Protection Coalition hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

“When you get to the polling place, I think you’re going to find people who are well trained and courteous and they are there for one purpose only,” said  Feeley. “ And that is to ensure that you have access to the polls, you are not interfered with unduly when you exercise your right to vote and your vote is recorded and counted accurately.”



Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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