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Your Ultimate Guide to Voting in Philly on Election Day

From voter intimidation to ballot selfies to polling place confusion. All your day-of-voting questions, answered.


Philadelphia voters in 2020

A voter in Philadelphia during the 2020 primary. This is your guide to how to solve any voting day problems in Philadelphia.

It’s finally here. Election Day. And what’s about to happen is anybody’s guess. But some things, you can count on: There’s going to be confusion. There are going to be questions. You may run into problems … serious problems. I’ve compiled this exhaustive guide to answer those questions and help you troubleshoot those problems. And if you have a question that’s not answered here, email me ASAP at [email protected], and I’ll do my best to get you an answer.

1. What phone numbers do I dial if I run into problems on Election Day?

Great place to start. 866-OUR-VOTE is a national nonpartisan election protection hotline that will be heavily staffed on Election Day. You can call or text. They’ll be tracking problems throughout the country and coordinating with local election officials and law enforcement resources as needed. The Philly-based watchdog group Committee of Seventy is part of the consortium behind that national effort.

We like this approach because you’re more likely to have your call answered and less likely to waste time calling the wrong office than if you pursue a local office. But if you do want to go the direct route, the Philadelphia district attorney’s Election Task Force (the go-to for voter intimidation issues or anything that might constitute illegal activity, such as voter fraud) is at 215-686-9641.

The City Commissioners Office (they’re the elected officials in charge of the Philly election) can be reached at 215-686-1590, and they’re usually very responsive on Twitter (@PhillyVotes).

Outside of Philadelphia, each county has its own election office that you can reach out to. In the Philadelphia suburbs, those numbers are as follows:

  • Montgomery County: 610-278­-3275
  • Delaware County: 610-891-4673
  • Chester County: 610-344-6410
  • Bucks County: 610-348-6154

The state has also its own election hotline at 1-877-VOTES PA. I tried calling it on Monday morning and groaned when I was the 39th person in the queue. But somebody actually picked up within five minutes. Those wait times will undoubtedly increase. But stay calm. And don’t give up.

2. Is it cool if I take a selfie of me pressing the button for my candidate when I’m inside the polling booth? You know, for Instagram.

I know a lot of people do this. I’ve done it. But Pat Christmas, the policy director for the Committee of Seventy, tells me voters shouldn’t do it, because Pennsylvania law says ballots are supposed to be private, secret. But the Supreme Court actually determined that the selfie ballot is protected by the First Amendment.

That said, it’s important to remember that people are watching what you post on social media. I’m pretty sure that Philly lawyer Adam Goodman didn’t think much of it when he posted a selfie of him holding mail-in ballot envelopes ahead of the primary in June. But the content of that selfie became “evidence” of voter fraud in a lawsuit filed against Pennsylvania by the Trump campaign.

Granted, that lawsuit was unsuccessful, but do you really want some discrepancy or inconsistency in your Election Day ballot selfie to become part of what will almost certainly be a contested election? My advice: Stick to the “I Voted” sticker selfies.

3. There are some armed militia types standing next to my polling place, holding scary looking guns. I should call 911, right?

I know that would be your first instinct. But hear me out.

Back when men decided to “protect” the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philly with guns, a lot of people wondered why the hell they weren’t being locked up. But according to the law, you can openly carry a firearm in Philadelphia so long as you have a license to carry, which is something anyone 21 years or older can apply for through the Philadelphia police department. Point is: Standing around with guns isn’t necessarily a crime.

Of course, on Election Day, voter intimidation becomes a big problem. And if you feel intimidated by these armed men (and who wouldn’t?), you should absolutely report them through the previously mentioned channels.

As for the police, well, if those men with guns are threatening people with those guns, pointing the guns at people, or doing anything else that is imminently dangerous, of course you should call 911, as you should in any true emergency situation.

If it doesn’t rise to that level, the officials you contact will dispatch people to handle the matter. But a little bit of trivia for you: Uniformed Philadelphia police officers aren’t actually allowed within 100 feet of a polling place on Election Day, with very few exceptions, one of them being if the judge of elections requests them. So talk to the judge of elections, and call the DA’s task force.

a bible at a polling place in Philadelphia

A Bible that caused quite a stir during a previous election in Philadelphia (photo courtesy Jess Conda)

4. Ugh. There’s a Bible at my polling place again. Whatever happened to separation of church and state? This is voter intimidation. I should report this immediately. Right?

So, the city sends a copy of a Bible to each polling place. It arrives in a box that contains other Election Day stuff that the polling place might need. Poll workers must be sworn in, and some of them choose to do it with a Bible. Those Bibles frequently wind up sitting on a table inside the polling place or next to the book where you sign your name. And this has caused problems with some voters in the past.

So now the city has instructed poll workers to put the Bible back inside the box when they’re done with the swearing-in. After all, it has no real purpose after the swearing-in, and the presence of the Bible upsets some people. But Bibles will probably still turn up at polling places. If you feel like this is a form of voter intimidation, kindly ask the poll workers to put them away.

If they don’t, sure, you could report this as voter intimidation, as others have done. Or you could say to yourself, They must be getting so many complaints about so many huge problems today, given that this is the most important election ever, so maybe I’ll just gripe about it on social media and let this slide. Just a thought.

5. Some Karen is taking video of everybody who walks inside. Is she allowed to do that?

Taking videos and photos is a classic technique of voter intimidation. If you find this behavior to be intimidating, report it. If the judge of elections doesn’t get the person to stop, the DA’s task force certainly will.

6. The guy checking my signature is wearing a Joe Biden hat. Legit?

Nope. That’s called “electioneering.” Election workers are forbidden from wearing campaign materials of any kind.

And there can’t be any campaign materials on display within 10 feet of the door to the room where the machines are kept. In 2012, poll workers had to cover up a mural of Barack Obama inside a polling place in Philly.

7. So you’re saying I can’t wear my MAGA hat when I go to vote?

You can! You can wear your MAGA hat to your heart’s content. The rules above only apply to election workers. Not citizens.

8. People are handing out Joe Biden pamphlets on the curb outside my polling place. Should I report that?

Some people mistakenly think that’s illegal. But it’s not. As long as they aren’t screaming things like Trump voters not welcome! while they’re doing it (which could be considered voter intimidation), they can hand out as many pamphlets as they want.

9. A bunch of randos who pretty clearly aren’t from around here just stormed into my polling place. Who exactly is allowed in here?

Voters from that division are allowed inside, obviously, but not voters from other divisions. And then you have your election officials, official poll workers, people given permission to provide assistance to voters (for instance, those assisting people who are disabled), poll watchers, and anyone else given explicit permission by the judge of elections to be inside.

10. I’m at my usual polling place, but my name isn’t in the book. Can I still vote?

The first thing you should do is verify that you’re at the right polling place — and really, you should check before you leave the house. You can determine your polling location on this city site or, if you’re outside of Philadelphia, this state-run website. If it turns out you’re at the wrong polling place, go to the correct location and vote there. If you’re where you’re supposed to be but you’re not in the book, insist on voting by provisional ballot.

11. The website is telling me to vote at my normal spot, but I got a pamphlet through my mail slot yesterday telling me to go somewhere else. What should I do?

Listen to the official website. That pamphlet could be part of a misinformation campaign. In my neighborhood in West Philly, there were once posters on utility poles telling us that our polling location had changed. Those posters were bogus. The idea here is to confuse you and make your complicated day even more complicated, so you might throw your hands up and not vote. Don’t fall for it.

12. But what if a polling place is changed at the last minute due to an emergency? Like, maybe the shop it’s supposed to be in got vandalized the night before. Maybe the local school had a flood. How do I get that information and differentiate it from the misinformation campaigns?

This happens in every election, says City Commissioner Al Schmidt. “Sometimes it happens literally during the election,” he explains. “Let’s say the place burns down the night before. We would have to move the polling location, and we’d post signs at that location telling people where the new polling place would be. There’s no ability to mail or call, so that’s the best we can do.”

13. Settle this for me once and for all: Do I or do I not need to show photo ID to vote?

An age-old Election Day question if ever there was one. In all of Pennsylvania, the only time you must produce identification to vote is if you’re voting for the very first time in your life or if you’ve moved and are voting in a new division. (The city is divided into wards, and those wards are divided into divisions.) This website will let you know what your division is.

14. And it needs to be photo ID?

No, and poll workers love to make this mistake. The acceptable forms of photo ID on Election Day are your PA driver’s license or PennDOT non-driver’s ID card, a photo ID issued by any state agency or the United States government, a United States passport, a United States armed forces ID, a student ID, or an employee ID.

But if you don’t have any of those forms of photo ID, you can use non-photo ID. Acceptable forms of non-photo ID include any issued by the state or national government; a firearm permit; a current utility bill, bank statement or paycheck; or a government check. So yes, the damn water bill you haven’t paid in six months will get you there.

Since this is a common issue with poll workers, be ready to use your phone to pull up this state website, which spells the official ID rules out in detail.

15. What’s this about a provisional ballot? Do I still vote on the machine?

No. If it’s determined that you’re ineligible to vote “the normal way” for whatever reason, you must insist on a provisional ballot. This is simply a paper ballot that you fill out, sign, and submit.

Election officials will have seven days to determine whether you are indeed eligible to vote. If you are, your vote is recorded. If you aren’t, your provisional ballot isn’t counted. Make sure you get a receipt for your provisional ballot. You can check the status of your provisional ballot using this official state website.

16. Who is actually in charge at my polling place?

Great question. There are elected (and sometimes appointed) officials there who are being paid for their time. The one in charge is the judge of elections. And really, whatever problem you have at your polling site, your first stop should be your judge of elections, if at all possible. You can look up the name of your judge of elections here. (You’ll need your ward and division number. See above.)

17. I requested a Pennsylvania mail-in ballot, but it never showed up. How do I vote?

Go to your polling place and insist on voting by provisional ballot.

18. I sent my mail-in ballot back a week ago, but I’m worried it wasn’t received. Can I just show up on Election Day and vote by machine?

Your ballot was almost certainly received and recorded, but unfortunately, the state’s vote-tracking website isn’t very reliable. This has led to a lot of anxiety and confusion. Schmidt says you could technically insist on voting by provisional ballot in person, but he strongly recommends against it. “It would be a real voting irregularity,” he says. “And it would slow down an already slow process. If you mailed your ballot or put it in a dropbox properly, we have your vote, and it will be recorded. The only reason somebody should do this is if they have some real reason to believe that their ballot will not be received, not just that the state website doesn’t say it has been.”

19. I received my mail-in ballot but didn’t fill it out because I decided to vote in person on Election Day instead. What do I do?

Bring all of the pieces of the mail-in ballot package you received (the ballot itself, the secrecy envelope, the declaration envelope) to the polling place and turn them in. After you sign a declaration affirming that you haven’t already voted, your mail-in ballot will be voided, and you’ll be allowed to vote on the machine.

But keep in mind that Election Day is going to be chaotic. Lines will be long. So think about that before you decide to make the lines longer. You can still submit your mail-in ballot at one of those satellite voting offices, including through Election Day. Here is the official list of those offices in Philadelphia. Here’s where you can find them for the rest of Pennsylvania.

20. What if I want to do that but my dog ate my mail-in ballot a few days ago?

If you’ve received a mail-in ballot but are unable to surrender it at your polling place, insist on voting by provisional ballot. Officials will have to verify that they haven’t received a mail-in ballot from you, and if that’s what they determine, your provisional ballot will be counted.

21. I didn’t have enough coffee when I was filling out the mail-in ballot, and I’m 99 percent sure I voted for the wrong candidate. Oops. Can I show up at the polls and change my vote?

Nope. Drink more coffee next time. And, I dunno, take your civic duty a little more seriously, maybe? Just a thought.

22. We’re Florida snowbirds who live in Bucks County. We still hadn’t received our mail-in ballots as of the Saturday before Election Day. And we’re currently in Florida. What do we do?*

Catch a cheap, quick flight from Florida to Philly to participate in what may very well be the most important vote in your lifetime. I just checked, and you can get a round-trip flight for $130 that will have you back in Florida before midnight for mojitos or whatever it is that you do in Florida. And I’ll personally pick you up at the airport and take you to vote. I’m not joking. You MUST vote.

* Somebody actually emailed me the above question on Sunday but declined my offer.

23. Do I need to wear a mask when I go to vote?

(Insert face-palm here.)

24. Polls are supposed to open at 7 a.m. It’s 7:30 a.m., and the place is totally locked up. What the heck do I do?

The City Commissioners deal with this. During one recent election, a polling place in Northwest Philadelphia didn’t open on time because the janitor who had the keys was running late. The city actually got a court order to break in. “You don’t want to let anything get in the way of voting,” City Commissioner Al Schmidt observed at the time. “We will take extraordinary measures to make sure that happens, including breaking a lock.” This might be one instance where it makes sense to contact the City Commissioners Office (or your county election office) directly as soon as you realize there’s a problem. And do so at 7:01 a.m. Don’t wait until 7:30.

25. I got stuck at work, so I’m not going to be able to get to my polling place until 7:55 p.m., and I heard the line was real long. Should I just go home?

No! You definitely shouldn’t go home. You should get in that damn line and wait. The law says that anybody in line by 8 p.m. on Election Day has the right to vote. So you might vote at 8:10 p.m. You might vote at 11 p.m. But you will vote as long as you get yourself to that line by 8 p.m. So do it!

26. Woah. I’ve never seen a voting machine like this before. What do I do?

The newish machines can be a bit intimidating, but ultimately, they’re fairly straightforward. Remember that those poll workers are there to help you exercise your right to vote. Don’t be afraid to ask them for assistance with the new voting machines. Here’s a helpful instructional video that walks you through the process step by step:

27. Okay, I’m inside the voting booth, and I have absolutely no idea what these ballot questions mean. Can you help?

Ah yes, the always-confounding ballot questions that seem like they were written to confuse you on purpose. (But your government would never do that, right? Right?) Fortunately for you, my colleague, David Murrell, explained the ballot questions for you in his expansive No Bullshit Guide to the Election, which you can read here.

28. Uh, so I just did everything I was supposed to do, but I think the voting machine broke. Am I screwed?

Schmidt says that voting-machine malfunctions tend to occur when the machines are being turned on or set up, not in the middle of a person voting. But if there is a problem, notify the staff immediately. Assuming you didn’t get to the point of actually submitting the vote, you’ll be able to vote on another machine or by using a provisional ballot.

29. Can I vote for my wife if I bring her ID?

No. The only exception is if your wife qualifies for an emergency absentee ballot, like if she’s suddenly been hospitalized. She’ll have to fill out this form requesting an emergency absentee ballot. And then you both need to fill out this form authorizing you to act on her behalf. Then, you’ll need to physically bring both to your local county board of elections office. (Just Google for the address.) After that, assuming all goes well, they’ll give you a ballot for her. And you’ll have to physically return that ballot to the office. I asked a representative from the state’s voting hotline if this is actually possible at this late stage of the game. “It’s gonna be tricky,” he said. “But it’s theoretically possible. Good luck.” Good luck indeed.

30. What’s all this talk I’ve heard recently about poll watchers? Who are they and what do they do?

Yes, poll watchers are about to become a huge part of the national conversation. Here’s what you need to know about poll watchers in Philadelphia and all of Pennsylvania.

31. Okay, I’ve successfully voted at the polls. Now what?

Pour a drink. Say a prayer. Try to get some sleep. If you have a good-luck charm, now is the time to use it.