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So far, the Philadelphia County Board of Elections office has approved over 250,000 combined mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election. Credit: Hannah Lazar

This year, registering to vote is drastically different in Philadelphia. For the first time ever, any Philadelphian can register for a mail-in ballot instead of simply voting in person or applying for an absentee ballot.

The decision to widely implement mail-in ballots across Pennsylvania was made at the end of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Pennsylvania voting officials wanted to make voting more accessible — and it seems voters are taking full advantage of the method. 

According to data from the Philadelphia County Board of Elections, their office has already approved over 230,000 mail-in ballots and 20,287 absentee ballots as of Sept. 10 for the 2020 general election. In 2016, the office said it issued 20,000 absentee ballots for the general election. 

While absentee ballots require the voter to list a reason they cannot vote in person – such as traveling out of state during the election, or having an illness or physical disability – anyone can apply for and receive a mail-in ballot. Although they have different labels, the two ballots are handled in the same way, according to Nick Custodio, who is the Deputy Commissioner for the city under Commissioner Lisa Deeley. They are mailed out at the same time, appear almost identical in format, and are counted in the same manner. The only difference is that the ballots are reported separately.

"Absentee ballots are listed in the state constitution as having an excuse. The legislature and governor wanted to have no excuse absentee balloting so anybody can apply without an excuse, but because it would require a constitutional amendment, they created a new category called mail-in voting," Custodio said. "But it's functionally the same, it's just a way to get around the way the law is right now." 

Pennsylvania mail-in and absentee ballot applications must be received by 5:00 p.m. on Oct. 27 by a voter’s county elections office. The last day to register to vote in the general election is Oct. 19. All mail-in ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3, and the office receives them by Nov. 6.

Despite the large number of voters who have requested a mail-in ballot, some voters and constituents have raised concerns about clerical reasons mail-in ballots could be rejected, like issues with signatures or post office delays. 

Concerned about the law that gave the state the ability to reject a ballot due to a potentially faulty signature, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, along with the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar in August. This prompted Boockvar to declare that in the 2020 general election and all following elections, a ballot cannot be rejected on the grounds that an election official doesn't believe the signature on the ballot matches the signature on file for the voter. 

However, officials can reject a ballot if it arrives after the deadline or if voters fail to use the secrecy envelope that comes with the ballot. The secrecy envelope is a white slip that voters put their ballot in before putting that in the outer envelope. Top Philadelphia elections officials worry that this rule will create "electoral chaos," and lead to over 100,000 votes being thrown out, causing a huge controversy after the election. This is especially serious in a swing state like Pennsylvania, where presidential elections are notoriously close. In 2016, President Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton by just over 44,000 votes. 

"I know it seems kind of weird to put an item into an envelope and put it into another envelope, but that's how Pennsylvania does it, and if you don't use that secrecy envelope, that first inner envelope, the recent Supreme Court decision said we can't count your ballot," Custodio said.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has encouraged citizens to vote by mail, and has agreed to cover the cost of stamps for mail-in ballots. Philadelphia also received a grant of $10 million to increase voting accessibility, which will be used to pay for vote-counting equipment, drop boxes around the city for mail-in ballots, and satellite voting offices. 

Philadelphia will roll out 15 temporary satellite voting offices, where voters can register to vote, apply for a ballot, receive a ballot, and submit the ballot, all in one location, and even in one day. These locations come in addition to the two already established election offices in the city. 

Penn has also encouraged vote-by-mail initiatives for students in the upcoming general election. The University sent an email urging students to register to vote, and on-campus student groups also have shown support. This past Sunday, Penn Dems delivered voting materials to 500 off-campus residences. 

Penn Leads the Vote also led initiatives aiding in student voter registration through the new platform, Motivote. College junior and Co-Director of Penn Leads the Vote Harrison Feinman said that this platform is a national service that the group has been collaborating with other schools on and is a “gamification of voting,” where you earn points and prizes from signing people up to vote and compete with other schools and departments. 

Voters in 45 states are eligible to vote by mail. But in Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, voters cannot submit mail-in ballots and must vote in person or submit a pre-approved excuse in order to apply for an absentee ballot. 

But mail-in ballots have not been universally supported, and have been challenged by President Donald Trump. The 1968 Wharton graduate's reelection campaign sued Pennsylvania, claiming that mail-in ballots were unconstitutional. But after losing the case, mail-in ballots remain an option to vote. After Trump's lawsuit, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro sued the United States Postmaster General Louis DeJoy for making national changes to the postal system that could delay the delivery of mail-in ballots to county offices.

Despite the remote alternatives, people can still opt to vote in person on election day at one of Philadelphia's 800 polling locations. But Custodio stresses that mail-in voting is a reliable alternative. 

“Make sure you register to vote, and make sure you do vote, whether that is through the mail or in person or one of our satellite locations – just make sure your voice is heard” Custodio said.