IN THE KNOW: First-Time Voter Guide

If you’ve never voted before, the process can be confusing and even intimidating, whether you are a teenager just turning 18, or a person with a disability, or a new citizen just learning English and unfamiliar with American political customs.

To help new voters of all kinds understand this most fundamental of American rights, The Committee of Seventy is offering a brief guide to the process: from what voting represents, to how and why you must register, to what types of identification and documents to bring to the polls on Election Day, to how to get help if you run into problems.

Although some of this information applies in all states, unless we say otherwise, assume that the details we offer here are particular to Pennsylvania. And sometimes there are changes in the law or in local voting procedures. You can always find the most current information, and ways to contact your local elections board, at the elections section of our website.

And remember, the next Election Day in Philadelphia is April 24, when the state will hold a primary election for President, U.S Senate and House of Representatives, and Pennsylvania Attorney General, Auditor General Treasurer and General Assembly. If you have questions or problems at the polls on Election Day, please call our hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).


- February 20, 2012 (Originally published November 1, 2010)



Who is allowed to vote in the United States?

Generally, any citizen who is at least 18 years old by Election Day can vote. Pennsylvania additionally requires that you must be a citizen of the U.S. for at least a month prior to Election Day and reside in the state and your election district (the area where your polling place is located) for at least 30 days prior to the election.

When and where can I vote?

Polls are open 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Election Day in Pennsylvania. After you registered to vote (we’ll explain this in a minute), you should have received a card in the mail telling you where to vote. If you are unsure where to vote, you should visit The Committee of Seventy’s Online Citizen’s Guide.

Do I have to prove who I am when I vote?

Yes, at least when you vote for the first time you do. You have to bring identification with you to your polling place and show it to the person who keeps the list of registered voters (this is called a “poll book.”). After the first time you vote, however, you don’t have to show ID; you only have to sign your name on the voter list.

What kind of identification should I bring?

Pretty much any official photo ID, such as a driver’s license, student ID card, military ID card, or a U.S. passport will do. But if you don’t have photo ID, you can bring an official document that has your name and address, such as a utility bill, paycheck, or bank statement. For a complete list of acceptable forms of ID, please look here.

What if I forget my identification?

You can fill out what’s called a “provisional ballot” and get a receipt from the poll workers. (Be sure to keep this receipt.) It has all the same choices as the ballot inside the voting booth. Within seven days, the county election officials will decide whether your vote was valid and let you know their decision (if not, they will have to explain why not).

What if I have a criminal record? Can I vote?

In most cases, yes. You may not vote only if you have been convicted of a felony (the most serious kinds of crime) and are currently in prison or a halfway house serving your sentence.  But if you are finished your sentence (or if you are out on probation or parole, even if you are living in a halfway house), or if you are in jail awaiting trial or serving a sentence for a misdemeanor (the less serious kinds of crime), then you are absolutely allowed to vote.

Do I need to do anything special before Election Day?

The first thing you need to do is register – that is, you need to tell local election officials who you are, where you live, and what political party, if any, you support. You have to file a form at least 30 days before the next election. The form is available at the elections section of our website. You can check to make sure your registration was recorded by checking here.

Will anyone know how I voted?

No, that is your secret. You have the right to cast your ballot in private, inside a screened-off booth, so that nobody can see how you cast your vote or persuade you to vote for someone else. The City Commissioners, who run Philadelphia’s elections, do keep a record of how often you vote, but they have no way of knowing how you voted in any election. 

Why do I have to register in advance?

It’s a way of making sure that your local election officials know how many people might vote so they can set up the right number of polling places in the right areas. It’s also a way to guarantee that people don’t vote more than once. As we said earlier, when you vote, election officials at your polling place will check off your name on a list of registered voters. That way, you can’t come back and vote again and nobody can vote illegally by pretending to be you.

What happens if I don’t have a permanent address?

You can still vote, though you do have to provide an address of some kind. Residents who are homeless may register to vote using an address where they receive mail, such as a homeless shelter, and students attending college in Pennsylvania may register in the district of their colleges (but if they register at the college address they can’t go home and vote a second time).

What if I did register, but my name is not on the list?

If your name does not appear in poll books on Election Day for some reason, call the Committee of Seventy’s hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE/866-687-8683) to check you are at the correct polling place. If so, you can ask the Judge of Elections, who is the person in charge of the polls, to call the local Voter Registration office (in Philadelphia, that’s 215-686-1590). If the Judge of Elections still cannot confirm you are registered, you may request a provisional ballot, which is a paper ballot which election officials count later if they can confirm you were in fact registered correctly.

Who am I allowed to vote for?

In 2011 Philadelphians voted for mayor and City Council and a trio of elected row offices. Some Pennsylvania counties (but not Philadelphia), also voted for members of the board that runs the local school system. In 2012, you will vote for your party’s nominees to run for President of the United States, Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and in Pennsylvania, Attorney General, Auditor General, Treasurer, and your local representatives in the General Assembly.

What are these things on the ballot called “questions”?

These are important matters that your elected representatives need your permission to carry out, such as borrowing money for public works projects or changing the state Constitution, which spells out how the state government works.  Philadelphia voters are frequently asked to approve amendments to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, which is the city’s “constitution.”

What if I am going to be away from home on Election Day?

Pennsylvania allows you to apply for what’s called an “Absentee Ballot,” meaning you fill in your votes in advance. You can mail the ballot in to your county elections board or deliver it in person (you need to have identification to prove you are the voter). Absentee ballots are allowed only in limited situations for people who won’t be in their home counties. For example, someone who will be travelling all day on Election Day, or who is in the hospital or serving overseas with the military, may apply. But you have to ask for the ballot at least a week before the election and your county elections board must receive it at least five days before the election. Details and an application are available here.

But what happens if I have an emergency and need an absentee ballot after the deadline?

If you miss the regular deadline, you may ask for an emergency ballot and return it to your county’s elections board  by 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election (though you have to get it signed by a special official called a Notary to prove your identity). If your emergency happens after the Friday deadline, you will need to ask permission from your local Court of Common Pleas (in Philadelphia, that is in Room 285 of City Hall). The application for emergency absentee ballots (along with some associated forms) is available here.

What should I do if I have trouble understanding the ballot in English?

Printed materials, ballots, and signs will be printed in both English and Spanish at the polling places. The Committee of Seventy’s website has additional information in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese in the top right corner of our home page. Many polling places will have Spanish-language interpreters available in person, and you may also ask the polling officials to connect you with a telephone-based interpreter service that can provide translation services in 173 languages. You may also designate someone to personally escort you into the voting booth to help you, though you will need to fill out some forms first.

Someone can go with me into the voting booth? How can I request this?

All voters have the right to have somebody help them, whether they need help with languages or they have some disability that makes it difficult to vote alone. There are two ways to do this. The first is to contact election officials in writing 21 days before the election and tell them you need help (they will put a note on the voter list that you need help). But if you haven’t notified them in advance, you can fill out a form at your polling place called a “Declaration of Assistance” form.

So anyone can help me?

Almost. Anyone can help you during elections where federal officials are on the ballot. Anyone can help during non-federal elections (basically, anytime you are voting for mayor or City Council, such as the 2011 elections) except your employer, a union leader, or the Judge of Elections.  This is to prevent someone you work for or with from seeing or trying to influence your vote.

What if I am disabled but the polling place isn’t handicapped accessible?

This does happen sometimes – for example, the voting machines are up a set of stairs or behind a narrow door so a wheelchair can’t get in or out. In that case, voters are entitled to apply for and use an Alternative Ballot, which is similar to an absentee ballot, but must be turned into your county’s elections board by 8 p.m. on Election Day. You can find the application and instructions for future elections here.

How can I find out if my polling place is handicapped accessible?

The office of the Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth, the top election official in the state, has a polling place locator on line. Enter your name and birthday, and it will tell you where to vote and whether that spot is convenient for persons with handicaps.
In Philadelphia, the City Commissioners have a list of fully accessible polling places, which they publish in local newspapers and which is available here.

If I have more questions, where should I go?

You can check the Committee of Seventy’s website for all kinds of details and links to the forms you may need. This will also give you information on voting in New Jersey and contact numbers for the boards of elections in surrounding Pennsylvania counties.

And if you run into a problem or have a question on Election Day, call our Election Day Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).

The City Commissioners’ website is: http://phillyelection.com/. You may also call 215-686-1500.

The Secretary of the Commonwealth has lots of information on the rules and deadlines in Pennsylvania, and a way to locate your polling place, at http://www.votespa.com. This site also includes contact information for all the county boards of elections in Pennsylvania.

The Committee of Seventy is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to free and fair elections in the Philadelphia region. If you have a comment on this IN THE KNOW, or want to suggest topics we should address in the future, please let us know: info@seventy.org.

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