New Online Absentee Ballot Request Makes Voting in Pa. … Marginally Easier

Left untouched by reform is the nonsensical requirement that absentee ballots must be received a full four days before Election Day.

pa absentee ballot

You can now request a physical absentee ballot online in PA. Photo by
Bill Oxford/Getty Images.

We have a lot of elections here in America, so it’s not unlikely that, at one point or another, you’ve been out of town on the big day. What to do about it, then?

Previously, you’d have to submit an absentee ballot request by filling out a paper form, then either mail it or hand-deliver it to the local county election office. At that point, the county election office would mail you back a paper ballot, which you would then mail back before Election Day. (Are you keeping track? That’s three separate mailings!)

On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf made that serpentine process less paper-intensive by one form, announcing that voters may now apply for their absentee ballots through a website — at which point they’ll rejoin the familiar path of receiving the actual ballot in the mail, then returning it, also through the mail. (See? No need to fret, USPS: You’ll still have plenty to do.)

Gov. Wolf’s efforts are a welcome attempt at modernization in a state whose election code still dates to 1937. In 2015, Wolf instituted online voter registration, which 1.4 million people have used to date. And Wolf has also been the driving force behind the attempt to update voting machines across the state so that they produce a paper trail — an effort that has produced its fair share of drama here in Philly.

But despite Wolf’s various reforms, there remain a few cumbersome restrictions for absentee voting. Chief among them: the online ballot request form isn’t yet available to military or overseas voters, who are, you know, the most obvious group of absentees. (Wolf’s office says that policy should be changing by 2020.) Also somewhat cumbersome: anyone using the online request form must either have a PennDOT driver’s license or ID. (Wolf’s office also says that requirement will be scrapped by 2020.)

The largest inconvenience of all has to do with Pennsylvania’s due dates for the ballots. According to that arcane 1937 election code — which would require legislation to change — all absentee ballots must be received by county elections offices by the Friday before the election. That’s right: an absentee ballot arriving in the mail at, say, 10 a.m. on the Tuesday of Election Day would be considered late. (There are exceptions for military and overseas absentee voters, who must postmark their ballots by Election Day and ensure they arrive within a week. And in presidential elections, any absentee ballot received on Election Day is still counted, but only for its presidential and vice presidential votes.)

The point is, Pennsylvania’s absentee deadline is the earliest, most stringent in the country, and it’s one of only two states (the other being Mississippi) that requires ballots arrive before Election Day. That’s surely part of the reason Pennsylvania rejected nearly 5 percent of the 205,000 absentee ballots it received in last year’s midterm elections. And it’s also part of the reason the state branch of the ACLU recently got fed up with the rule and sued Pennsylvania, arguing the early deadline amounts to voter disenfranchisement. That case remains ongoing.

At least for those who are eligible, though, the new online request form should make it easier to meet the deadline. All absentee ballots will be due by 5 p.m. on November 1st — four days before the actual election. The deadline to request a ballot is October 29th — but again, as long as you’re not in the military or overseas, you can already do it now. So why wait? Request your ballot here.