Civic News

5 last-minute questions you probably have about voting and Election Day — answered

Here's what to keep in mind about your rights at the polls, how Pennsylvania is counting ballots and what we might know about the results on election night.

It's voting time. (Courtesy photo)

At the beginning of this year, it was hard to imagine that there’d be bigger story than the 2020 presidential election. But a pandemic, civil rights movement and a collapsing economy have proven to make a challenging and news-filled year for us all.

2020 will certainly go down as one of the most news-filled, action-oriented and divided years in recent American history. And while the election has essentially been happening for weeks here in Pennsylvania thanks to widely available mail-in and early voting, Election Day is finally upon us this week.

More than 3 million mail-in ballots were requested in Pennsylvania, nearly a quarter of the entire population of the state and nearly half the total turnout from 2016. And voting in-person will happen Nov. 3 across the state from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find your polling location here.

And remember, if you’re still in line to vote at 8 p.m., stay put — you may stay as long as it takes to cast your vote. Health experts are suggesting to maintain social distancing at the polls, wearing a mask and bringing hand sanitizer with you.

A lot is still unknown about how Election Day and night will go. Voting experts, and the Associated Press, which traditionally “calls” an election, have told folks to prepare to go to bed not knowing the results, although we will likely have some picture of what’s going on.

Here are some lingering questions you may have heading into Election Day 2020, and their answers:

If I received a mail-in ballot, but now I want to vote in person, what should I do?

First, a common concern of mail-in voting is that it won’t work, or that it isn’t legitimate. That concern is pretty unfounded, and many states, like Colorado, have been using mail-in voting as its main form of voting for years.

It’s too late to ensure a timely delivery by mail now, officials are saying. So if you’ve still got your ballot sitting on your kitchen table, then fill it out, check that you’ve sealed it in both envelopes and sign it, and head to a drop box or satellite voting center. You must return your ballot to a location in the county that issued your mail ballot, and you can find locations and hours here. This must be done by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, but some close earlier.

If you still want to forfeit your mail-in ballot at the polls tomorrow, it’s your right, but listen to what the Streets Dept.’s Conrad Benner has to say about the process:

What should I prepare for as an in-person first-time voter?

If you’re heading in-person to the polls for the first time on Tuesday, remember to bring some form of ID, and to be sure you know where your polling location is (check here). Be sure to get there early, bring a snack in case you’re waiting for a while, and know your rights:

  • If the polls close while you’re still in line, stay in line — you have the right to vote.
  • If you make a mistake on your ballot, ask for a new one.
  • If the machines are down at your polling place, ask for a paper ballot.

For help or questions, you can call the ACLU’s nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-687-8683 for English and 1-888-839-8682 for Spanish.

If you are told your name is not in the list of registered voters, request a provisional ballot.

Can I register to vote at the polls?

Nope, sorry — the deadline was Oct. 19.

How is Pennsylvania counting ballots?

Absentee and mail-in ballots are being counted by machines in Philadelphia, and can’t begin doing so until 7 a.m. on election day. Billy Penn’s Max Marin showed the process in a recent tweet thread, saying the machines can count 12,000 votes per hour.

Elections officials in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties have said that once they start counting on Election Day, they won’t stop.

“We’re planning on running 24 hours a day,” Bob Harvie, the Bucks County commissioner who chairs the elections board told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Once we start opening ballots, we’re going to have different shifts where we’re never going to close the doors of the Board of Elections.”

But other counties have said they won’t start counting until the next day, or even after. Cumberland and Erie counties, for instance, won’t count absentee ballots until they’re done with Election Day votes, which could be as late as Wednesday morning. Check out this map from the Pennsylvania Capital Star, showing when each country plans to start counting mail-in ballots.

This is the order in which ballots will be counted, per The Inquirer’s Johnathan Lai: The first ballots to be counted will be the mail ballots that were returned early, and then the in-person votes. These votes are being put into electronic machines, so getting their results is easier — and “all the votes from a machine can be added to the county’s tally within minutes.”

Then, the rest of the mail ballots get counted, which will likely take days as it’s a more involved process for elections officials to verify the voter information on the outside envelope, manually open that outer envelope, pull out the inner envelope, etc.

The last ballots to be counted are provisional ballots, aka “the paper ballots used at polling places when it’s unclear whether a vote should be counted.”

What will we know on election night?

It’s likely that official results of the election are not called on election night, as millions of voters have taken advantage of mail-in voting for the first time, and those votes take longer to count. Pennsylvania will be among the slowest to count its ballots, FiveThirtyEight noted this weekend.

Even for smaller counties that may be able to process votes quicker, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, the state has until Nov. 6 to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day, and can’t consider its counting complete until then.

“Election-night results are expected to be disproportionately made up of Election Day votes, which will probably skew Republican,” FiveThirtyEight said. “Then, as absentee ballots are counted in the ensuing days, the state will probably experience a blue shift,” as more democrats are expected to be voting by mail than republicans.

As Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia City Commissioners Chair Lisa Deeley noted in an open letter today in preparation for Election Day: Have patience.

“We know all Philadelphians have been through a difficult year, and you know the importance of this election,” they wrote. “If you should encounter frustrating or difficult situations on Election Day, let your inner strength guide you. Stay calm, stay respectful, stay above the fray.”

Companies: The Philadelphia Inquirer / ACLU of Pennsylvania
Series: Election 2020

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