Your Voting Rights

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the October 28, 2008 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

With the election a week away voting is on everyone’s minds. Here are some common questions and some tips in case you need help on Election Day.

What do I do if I need assistance at the polling place?

Under federal and Pennsylvania law, if you cannot enter the voting booth or use the voting system due to a disability, you can select a person to enter the voting booth with you to provide assistance. You can choose anyone to assist, except for your employer, an agent of your employer, an officer or agent of your union, or the Judge of Elections. The first time you use assistance, you will have to complete and sign a form provided by the election officials at the polling place. After the first time, your registration record will include notation of your request for assistance.

The federal Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 generally requires polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to people with disabilities for all federal elections. Where no accessible location is available to serve as a polling place, a county must provide an alternate means of casting a ballot on the day of the election.

If you have a disability, or are at least 65 years of age and have been assigned to a polling place deemed inaccessible by the County Board of Elections, you can vote by alternative ballot. If you are qualified to vote by alternative ballot, you have the right to do so regardless of whether you are able to appear to vote at the polling place. Much like an absentee ballot, an alternative ballot is a paper ballot that can be delivered to the County Board of Elections in person, by an authorized representative, or through the U.S. mail.

Applications for an alternative ballot must be submitted to your County Board of Elections no later than 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before Election Day. In case of an emergency, you can submit an Emergency Application for Alternative Ballot, which must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Completed alternative ballots must be received by the County Board of Elections no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day (at the time the polls close).

When is the best time to vote?

In Pennsylvania, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The busiest times of day to vote are before and after normal working hours. If you can, try going at less-busy times. If you are in line by the time the polls close, you must be allowed to cast your vote.

This will be my first time voting. What do I need to know?

All voters who appear at a polling place for the first time must show proof of identification. Approved forms of photo identification include:

  • Pennsylvania driver’s license or PennDOT ID card
  • ID issued by any Commonwealth agency
  • ID issued by the U.S. Government
  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. Armed Forces ID
  • Student ID
  • Employee ID

If you do not have a photo ID, you can use a non-photo identification that includes your name and address. Approved forms of non-photo identification include:

  • Confirmation issued by the County Voter Registration Office
  • Non-photo ID issued by the Commonwealth
  • Non-photo ID issued by the U.S. Government
  • Firearm permit
  • Current utility bill
  • Current bank statement
  • Current paycheck
  • Government check

In addition to proper identification, you may choose to bring the following items with you to the polls:

  • A list of the candidates on the ballot and who you plan to vote for
  • A list of key issues or specific proposals that are on the ballot

What do I do if it’s my first time voting and I forget my ID?

Vote with a provisional ballot. Don’t leave without voting!

A provisional ballot is used to record a vote when there is some question regarding a voter’s eligibility. You have the right to vote by provisional ballot if:

  • Even though you are properly registered and eligible to vote in the election district, your name does not appear on the district register (poll book) and election officials cannot determine your registration status.
  • You do not have an approved form of identification the first time you appear to vote in an election district (this is required regardless of whether your name appears on the general register).
  • An election official asserts that you are not eligible to vote. (In a primary election, this includes voters who claim to be registered for a particular political party, but the district register indicates they are registered as a member of another political party.)

You are required to vote by provisional ballot if:

  • You are voting as a result of a federal or state court order.
  • You are voting as a result of an order extending the time established for closing the polls by state law that is in effect 10 days before an election.

County election officials will examine the provisional ballots within seven days after an election to determine whether you were entitled to vote in the election at the election district where you voted.

I’ve heard lately that people will be denied the right to vote if they show up wearing political t-shirts or buttons. Can I be stopped from voting?

What you have heard about is a ban on passive electioneering—which is defined as active work for and promotion of a political party which is banned at polling places under state law.

Some counties’ Boards of Elections view wearing a t-shirt or buttons as violating this law, and there have been lawsuits filed to that effect.

In ALLEGHENY COUNTY, you are able to wear your shirts and buttons and go directly in and vote.

The theory behind the law is that passive electioneering will intimidate some and lead them to either not vote or be pressured into voting one way or another.

Keep in mind that the state has left the determination as to whether or not someone violates that law to individual counties’ Boards of Elections, so this will differ with each county. For information specific to your county, contact the Board of Elections directly. If in doubt and you haven’t had a chance to contact the Board of Elections, either go without the shirt or button or bring something that you can wear over it.

Legally, those at the polling place can not stop you from voting, but they can ask you to leave the polling place and either change or cover up the political language.

I’m nervous about using a touch screen. Is there anywhere I can see how this works before Election Day?

On Allegheny County’s website (, there is a training video that shows how the machines work, or you can call 412-350-VOTE to find out about demonstrations in your community.

For any additional information, contact the Allegheny County Board of Elections or the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters.