Return envelope (left). Secrecy envelope (bottom). Ballot (top).

We’re well aware by now that Pennsylvania is the ultimate swing state, upon which the entire presidential election could hinge. Both Trump and Biden campaigns are pouring advertising and resources into the state, and that’s not going to let up until Nov. 3.

That means your vote definitely, unequivocally, matters this year. So let’s make the most of it, shall we? To help navigate the new normal, here’s a reliable, fact-checked (like all our stories), everything you need to know guide to voting in the presidential election.

How do I find out if I’m registered to vote and where my polling place is located? 

You can find out if you’re registered to vote in PA here. It will tell you your status, voting district and polling place. You can also contact your county’s voter registration office, or check by phone at 1-877-VOTESPA.

How do I register to vote? 

To register to vote, or to change your address or other information, go here. Your application can be completed through the website, or an application can be mailed to you, or delivered to your county voter registration office. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 19 for the Nov. 3 general election.

How do I vote by mail and what the heck is the secrecy envelope? 

Because of the pandemic, interest in voting by mail has skyrocketed this year. More than two million Pennsylvanians have already requested mail-in ballots, and that’s only the beginning. Directions for how to apply for a mail-in ballot are here.

If you applied for permanent mail-in voter status during the primary, you should have received a confirmation email from the state noting that you don’t need to reapply for a mail-in ballot.

Of course, there are complications this year.

There are worries about voters submitting “naked ballots” — without being placed inside the required secrecy envelope. If voters make this mistake at the same rate as they did during the June primary, that could mean up to 100,000 votes could be discarded. Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the last election was 44,292 in Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, this has the potential to cause chaos.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a ruling that in order to be counted, your completed ballot must be placed inside the included “secrecy envelope,” and then placed into the large prepaid return envelope.

First, when filling out your ballot, make sure you fill in the ovals completely with a black or blue ballpoint pen. Be sure not to make stray marks.

Put the ballot in the secrecy envelope. The secrecy envelope is labeled as “Official Election Ballot.” Put the secrecy envelope inside the outer, prepaid return envelope.

Then sign, date and complete the Voter’s Declaration on the outside of the return envelope. It must be signed!  That’s a properly dressed ballot that will be counted. Don’t forget the secrecy envelope!

Image courtesy of

Here’s a simple video that spells out the process.

Then you can either mail your ballot or drop it off at the Allegheny County elections office on the sixth floor of the County Office Building (Room 601) at 542 Forbes Ave. Downtown. Or find out the location of your county’s election office here.

Where else can I drop off my ballot? 

You can also drop it off at several countywide satellite early voting locations, like the South Park Ice Rink and CCAC Homewood, on Oct. 10-11, 17-18 and 24-25. The full list for Allegheny County is here. These satellite offices will also provide the opportunity to apply for, complete and turn in mail-in ballots at the same time.

What about absentee ballots? 

Another similar type of ballot, absentee ballots, are available for those who are going to be away from their municipality on Election Day, such as college students, members of the military or people who are traveling. This is how to apply.

What is the deadline for mail-in and absentee ballots?

Mail-in and absentee ballot applications must be received by your county election office by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Your completed mail-in ballot must be postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day Nov. 3, and received by your county election office by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 to be counted.

If you think you made a mistake with your mail-in ballot, you can take it to your polling place on the day of the election, or call your county’s election office for instructions.

If you provide an email address on your ballot and/or ballot application, you’ll receive updates as your application and ballot are processed. You can also track your ballot’s status online.

I want to vote in person. What should I expect?

Polling places were consolidated for the primary election in June, but all of the regular 1,323 polling places in Allegheny County will be back for the general election on Nov. 3. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.  If you are anywhere in Pennsylvania, you can check your polling place here.

If you change your mind about voting by mail and decide to do it in person, bring your ballot and envelope to your polling place to be voided by a poll worker. You’ll then be allowed to vote in person.

When you vote in a polling place for the first time, you’ll need to show an ID like a Pennsylvania driver’s license, U.S. passport, student ID, utility bill or current paycheck. More details are here.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.