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Harrisburg, Pa. — The Nov. 2, 2021 Pennsylvania election is fast approaching.
Voters statewide — regardless of party affiliation — will elect a new Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice as well as judges at all levels of the judicial system. Municipal positions such as mayor, school board director, and council member will also be on the ballot.
Below, Spotlight PA answers some of the most frequently asked questions about the voting process and this fall’s races. And join us on Oct. 21 at noon for a free virtual panel on this election and why it matters.
Can I still register to vote?
Monday, Oct. 18 is the last day you can register to vote in the Nov. 2 election. If you’re 18 or older, a U.S. citizen, and have lived in Pennsylvania for at least 30 days, you are eligible. Register online here.
How can I request a mail ballot?
A registered voter can request a mail ballot from their county election office by filling out this form by 5 p.m. Oct. 26.
You can also go to your county election office (find the address here), request a mail ballot there, fill it out, and return it on the spot.
I have a mail ballot. How do I return it?
You have at least two options. Option one: Mail your ballot back to your county election office. Some counties pay for the postage, while others don’t, so pay attention to the writing on the envelope.
Option two: In all 67 counties, a voter can return their own ballot to a local election office in person (again, find the address here). Some counties have set up satellite offices and drop boxes. Look up those locations here.
This part is extra important: Ballots must be received by the county election office before 8 p.m. on Election Day. Plan accordingly.
Can I vote in person?
Which judicial races will be on the ballot? Which courts are responsible for which rulings? Which courts set cash bail?
Voters will be asked to make choices on a number of judicial races, including those for Pennsylvania’s three statewide appellate courts: Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth.
Commonwealth Court handles new civil cases as well as actions brought against state agencies, while Superior Court hears criminal and civil appeals from the county courts.
The state Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of legal disputes. Since the beginning of 2020, the high court has handed down highly consequential election and pandemic decisions. The justices in 2018 also threw out the state’s congressional map, finding it was drawn unfairly to benefit Republicans.
Depending on where you live, you may also be asked to vote on candidates for Court of Common Pleas, a municipal court, or a magisterial district court.
Pennsylvania’s 512 local magistrates set cash bail and preside over the kinds of disputes many of us might encounter someday, such as a small-claims case with a home contractor, a traffic offense, a violation of a local ordinance, or a disagreement with a landlord.
District judges must run for reelection every six years, and not every voter will be asked to weigh in during this election cycle. So is your local magistrate on the ballot? It’s a basic question that, depending on where you live, can be surprisingly tough to answer.
The first barrier is finding out who your magistrate is. Pennsylvania’s central court system maintains a list of all magistrates by county and district (Philadelphia uses a different system and is excluded). Figuring out which district you live in can be a challenge. For example, it’s easy in Lehigh County, which has a lookup tool, but tougher in Lancaster County, which publishes only a static map.
The best place to look for that information is on your county government’s website. Then, visit your county’s election division for a list of candidates or sample ballot to see if your district judge is up for reelection.
Investigating an incumbent or challenger’s qualifications is also difficult. Candidates aren’t evaluated or given a rating by the Pennsylvania Bar Association — it reviews only the qualifications of people running for appellate court seats. And local coverage of these races is spotty, at best.
That’s a significant lack of scrutiny for judges who make $93,338 a year, with the possibility of a pension and lifetime health care. As a Spotlight PA/PennLive investigation found, there are also huge variations in their workloads. In 2019, 10% of district judges had at least 60 days without court appearances, above and beyond holidays, weekends, and training days.
One measure you can consider for incumbents is how many days of the year they did (or didn’t) have court proceedings using this tool.
What else am I voting on?
The best way to find this out is to look up a sample ballot before Election Day, which some counties allow voters to do online. If that’s not an option in your area, use the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 tool.
You should be prepared to vote on school board candidates. These races are receiving an unusually high level of attention this fall because of the extreme views of many candidates. That’s why it’s even more important to vet the names on your ballot.