Time running out to apply for absentee ballots in Pennsylvania

Posted: October 23, 2012

Officially, the deadline for eligible voters to request absentee ballots in Pennsylvania is Oct. 30, a week before Election Day.

Practically speaking, however, the deadline is now.

That's because mail deliveries will slow the process, and the completed ballots have to be returned by Nov. 2 to be fully counted.

Any voter who expects to be out of town on Nov. 6 or who is unable to get to the polls because of illness or disability will have to request an absentee ballot immediately.

The first step is to fill out an absentee ballot application and send or deliver it to the county election board.

Blank applications are available at the same county election offices, or on the state website, www.votespa.com.

Voters can also telephone and ask their county election boards to mail them applications - though that will also mean an additional delay waiting for the application to arrive in the mail.

This year, for the first time, people seeking absentee ballots must provide additional information to document their identity: an ID number from a PennDot driver's license or other PennDot ID card, the last four digits of their Social Security number, or a photocopy of a qualified voter ID card - a driver's license or one of the other photo IDs specified in Pennsylvania's new voter ID law.

Voters will also have to provide a brief explanation for being absent on Election Day - such as business or vacation - or describe the illness or disability that prevents them from getting to a polling place. Those who cite a medical excuse are asked to provide their doctor's name and contact information.

When voters' absentee applications are returned, county election officials will compare the numbers with voters' registration data. If the numbers match, they'll print an absentee ballot - tailored to the congressional and legislative districts where the voter lives - and mail the ballot to whatever address the voter has provided.

Voters who are handicapped or at least 65 years old and assigned to an inaccessible polling place can request what's known as an alternative ballot - identical to the absentee ballot, but requiring less information from the voter, no ID requirements at all. All but 60 of the city's roughly 900 polling sites are deemed inaccessible, usually because they lack adequate parking.

Local mail deliveries shouldn't take long, but many people who sent in absentee ballot applications weeks ago are still waiting for their ballots to arrive.

There are a couple of reasons for delay that have nothing to do with the U.S. Postal System - a Republican Party effort to get the Libertarian presidential candidate out of the race, which led many counties to delay distribution of absentee ballots, and the new requirements for voters to provide ID numbers, from their drivers' licenses or Social Security cards.

When the ballot arrives in the mail, voters must choose their candidates and carefully follow instructions for putting the ballot into the specified envelope and mailing it back. The envelope must be signed and carefully filled out - any mistakes could jeopardize the vote, because it's subject to challenge before it can be counted.

With the exception of absentee ballots cast by soldiers overseas, which are counted even if they arrive after the election, the absentee ballots are due back the Friday before the election, Nov. 2.

Ballots that arrive after 5 p.m. on Nov. 2, but before the close of polls at 8 p.m. on Nov. 6 are counted for president and other federal offices, but not for state offices.

Alternative ballots will count for all races as long as they're returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Voters who apply for absentee ballots that don't arrive in time to be returned have two options: they can visit a county election office in person, prepared to provide photo ID and fill out an absentee ballot on the spot, or make arrangements to vote at the polls on Election Day.

Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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