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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for Pennsylvania Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: September 17, 2020
Published: August 20, 2020

This is part of the Brennan Center’s Toolkits for Activists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Political Context  |  What’s in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Administering an election under pandemic conditions requires undertaking steps to keep voting accessible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the problems Covid-19 poses, what preparedness measures Pennsylvania has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some political context for your advocacy.

Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local officials have a lot of responsibility over elections. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state officials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we highlight some examples of changes that local elections officials can also make with this symbol:🔸

Political Context

Below is a list of the relevant officials and information about the legislative session.

Governor: Tom Wolf (D)  

Secretary of the Commonwealth: Kathy Boockvar (D)

Legislature: House (R) Senate (R)

Legislative Session: The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on November 30, 2020. Either the legislature or the governor can call a special legislative session.

Local Elections Officials: In Pennsylvania, a number of county officials share responsibilities for administering elections. You can look up individual county officials here.

What Pennsylvania Has and What’s Needed

Three priorities. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elections systems for success during a pandemic: registration, mail voting, and in-person voting.


Covid-19 may disrupt the traditional ways Americans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or registering at government agencies. In the crucial weeks before the registration deadline, postal service disruptions may lead many registration forms to arrive at election offices after the deadline.

Preparatory Measures Pennsylvania Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter registration

Changes Still Needed:

  • Prepare to extend online and mail voter registration deadlines based on conditions in the state
  • Voter registration on Election Day

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previous elections. Allowing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Election Day and decreases the exposure risk to Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Pennsylvania Already Has Taken:

  • All voters can vote by mail without an excuse 
  • Online tool for requesting an absentee or mail-in ballot
  • No ID requirement for return of absentee or mail-in ballot
  • No notary or witness requirement for return of absentee or mail-in ballot
  • Provides pre-paid postage for voting by mail
  • Accepts late-arriving ballots postmarked by Election Day

Changes Still Needed:

  • Provide a post-election notice and cure process for defects on absentee-ballot envelope, including signature mismatch or missing signatures
  • Send mail-ballot applications to all voters who have not yet applied

In-Person Voting

Even with expanded mail voting opportunity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disenfranchise voters without Internet and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accordance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Pennsylvania Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure sufficient polling places are open and resourced on Election Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting locations🔸
  • Take proper public health precautions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold training sessions for polling-place workers well in advance of Election Day, so that election officials can better anticipate problems with staffing and logistics🔸
  • Increase access to curbside voting at polling locations

Advocacy Focus: Protecting Polling Places

No matter how prepared Pennsylvania is as a matter of policy, elections officials and advocates must stay vigilant about ensuring safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for everyone all the way through Election Day. Here are some important things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Pennsylvania and what rules govern the process:

  • Except in the event of an emergency, the county board of election must provide at least 5 days’ notice of any proposed polling change. The proposed change may not occur if the county board is presented with a petition objecting to the change, signed by a majority of the registered electors in the district.🔸
  • Portable/movable or temporarily constructed polling places are allowed if they are an adequate size and have adequate facilities.🔸
  • County boards of election are responsible for providing polling places with adequate supplies.🔸

Key Dates for Pennsylvania Elections

  • May 18, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the Primary Election
  • June 2, 2020: Primary Election Day
  • October 19, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the General Election
  • October 27, 2020 (5:00 p.m.): Deadline for receipt of absentee-ballot and mail-ballot applications at county elections offices
  • November 3, 2020: General Election Day