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Everything you need to know about voting in Philly’s 2023 primary election (and not just for mayor)

Want to vote early? Get a mail ballot? Use a drop box? Here’s how.

A volunteer enters a polling place in the East Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia during the city’s 2022 primary election. (Sue Dorfman for Votebeat)

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Votebeat Pennsylvania is a nonprofit newsroom reporting on voting access and election administration in Pennsylvania. Dig deeper into how your vote gets counted in our free newsletter

Philadelphia’s May primary happened on May 16. You can find election results from Chalkbeat here. And be sure to follow Votebeat’s ongoing coverage of Pennsylvania here.


The biggest question for Election Day on Tuesday, May 16, is who will become the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia mayor, but there is a lot more on the ballot. Voters will also decide the races for all City Council seats, city commissioner, city controller, sheriff, state and city judges, and register of wills. In addition, four ballot questions are up for approval. 

Votebeat has everything you need to know to make voting in Philly’s 2023 local elections go as smoothly as possible, and how to let us know if you run into any issues.

Who can vote

In Philadelphia, in order to participate in the May 16 primary election, you need to be a U.S. citizen and Philly resident for at least 30 days before Election Day.

You also need to be registered to vote. The deadline was May 1, and has now passed. Check your voter registration status here.

Only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in the primary races for candidates, because Pennsylvania is one of nine states that has closed primaries. This means if you are among the 1.2 million Pennsylvanians who are independent or unaffiliated voters, you cannot vote in any of the primary races. However, all voters can vote on the four ballot questions.

Philadelphians who live out-of-state, overseas, or who serve in the military can also vote, via mail-in, civilian, and overseas ballots. More on that below.

How to vote by mail in Philadelphia

All eligible Pennsylvania voters can request a mail-in or civilian absentee ballot. The deadline to request a mail ballot was May 9, and has now passed.

Completed ballots must be received at the County Boards of Election by 8 p.m. on May 16.

For questions about absentee and mail-in ballot voting, call the Philadelphia County Board of Elections at 215-686-3469 or visit their office at City Hall. 

If you are a voter who has an illness or physical disability that prevents you from filling in your own ballot, you can also apply to have someone help you. This person can be a family member or friend, but cannot be your employer, employer’s representative, union representative, or a judge of elections. Both you and your assistant must fill out an Assistance Declaration — you should submit it at the same time that you apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot, and the person helping you to vote must carry a copy with them if they are delivering your completed ballot in person.

How to make sure your mail ballot is counted

Now that you’ve filled out both the front and the back of each page of your mail ballot, what next? In Pennsylvania, it’s important to make sure you read and follow the instructions carefully so that your ballot does not get invalidated. 

Here are the necessary steps to take, but if these differ from what you read on your ballot, follow the instructions that are typed on the ballot. 

  • Step 1: Seal the completed ballot in the inner secrecy envelope provided. It should say “official election ballot” on it. Do not write on the secrecy envelope. 
  • Step 2: Insert the inner secrecy envelope into the pre-addressed outer return envelope. It is OK to write on the outer envelope, which is where you must sign and date the “voter’s declaration” on the outside. Your signature and the written date of when you signed it are required for your ballot to be counted. 
  • Step 3: Seal the outer envelope. Add postage if you’re sending it through the mail. 
  • Step 4: Either mail the sealed envelope or hand-deliver it to the County Board of Elections, City Hall, Room 142. Or you can deliver it to one of the city’s 18 official drop-off boxes. Mail ballot drop boxes are open 24 hours a day until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Completed ballots should be mailed at the post office several days before Election Day – in time for it to arrive at the County Boards of Elections by 8 p.m. on  Tuesday, May 16. 

However, military service members and overseas absentee ballot voters get a grace period for returning their ballots. They have until the night before – 11:59 p.m. on Monday, May 15 – to get their ballot postmarked and mailed in order to be counted. These ballots must be received at the County Boards of Elections by Tuesday, May 23. 

You can also vote early in person by applying for and filling out a mail-in or absentee ballot, all in one visit, at the City Hall elections office. 

How to vote in-person on Election Day in Philadelphia

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Philadelphia on Election Day, Tuesday, May 16. You must be in line by 8 p.m. in order to be allowed to vote. 

ID is required to vote only if you are a first-time voter in this county. If you have voted in Philadelphia before, no form of identification is required. 

For first time voters, acceptable forms of ID include a valid voter registration card, state driver’s license or PennDOT ID card, U.S. passport, state-issued or U.S. government-issued ID, student ID, employee ID, non-photo ID issued by the state, current utility bill or bank statement, firearm permit, and other options listed here

Find your polling place online by using the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Polling Place Search tool, or by calling the Philadelphia county voter registration office at ​​215-686-1590. 

That phone number is also where you can confirm your voter registration status. Or log onto the state’s Voter Registration Status tool, where you can find your polling place, in addition to your registration status, voting districts, and political party, if any. 

Watch this video to see how Philadelphia’s voting machines work. 

When you arrive at your polling place, if for some reason your name is not listed in the book of registered voters, you will be asked to fill out a provisional ballot. It’s a paper ballot that will be counted if, when it is checked, you are confirmed as an eligible registered voter for that precinct. Provisional ballots are also used if you applied for, but did not return, a mail ballot or absentee ballot, as a safeguard to ensure voters cast only one ballot each. 

Firearms are allowed in some polling places, but not if the poll site is a weapons-free place such as a school or courthouse, according to Pennsylvania law.  Campaign materials and flyers are only allowed if they are part of a voter’s clothing or if the voter keeps it with them throughout the voting process and does not engage in campaign activities. 

“Ballot selfies” are allowed under the First Amendment, but must not include other voters and their ballots. 

How to get assistance in voting

Voters with an illness or disability who require a mail-in or absentee ballot can fill out an Assistance Declaration form to designate a friend or family member as the person to help fill out and deliver the ballot to the county elections office. 

For language access and translation services, more than 300 interpreters provide interpretation services at every polling place in the city. A “Language Line” phone service is available on-site for all voters if a bilingual interpreter is not available in-person for the required language. Voters select the language desired from a Language Identification Guide, and then a poll worker will call the Language Line to get an interpreter as needed. 

Voters are also allowed to bring a family or friend to help as a designated agent, as long as they are not their employer, union representative, or elections office leader. 

For wheelchair accessibility, some polling places are fully accessible (“FH”) while others are partially accessible. A list of fully accessible sites is available here.

What closed primaries mean and why Philadelphia’s primary election matters

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that has closed primaries.  This means that primary races are open only to registered members of that party – Democrats vote in a Democratic primary, Republicans in a Republican primary. Unaffiliated and independent voters – the state has 1.2 million of them – can only vote for candidates in general and local elections.

However, Philly’s May 16 election is open to all voters because four ballot questions about city government are up for vote. 

And Philly’s closed primary has a lot at stake. 

Philadelphia’s 100th mayor will likely be decided in this race, as registered Democrats dominate the city’s electorate. The city’s next mayor might also be its first woman leader. The entire 17-member City Council is up for a vote, as are the commissioners, sheriff, register of wills, and numerous municipal and statewide judges. Even the city controller is up for a vote this year in a special election, even though that official is normally elected in a different year. And, four ballot questions seek voter approval to amend the city Charter. 

How to learn about the candidates

Votebeat has collected a few comprehensive voter guides that go over candidate bios and issues ranging from education to the environment, gun violence to general knowledge. Several are Every Voice, Every Vote partners. Here are a few: 

There are nine remaining candidates for mayor in the Democratic primary, and one in the Republican primary. 

All 17 City Council seats are up for a vote, including the seven at-large council seats. District council seats are open to residents of each open district, while the at-large Council seats — for which 27 candidates are vying for seven open seats — are open to all Philadelphians. In the at-large council, Democrats have historically held five seats while Republicans hold two, but in 2019, one of the minority-party seats flipped to be held by the Working Families Party, which seeks to maintain and grow its presence in this race. 

What to know about the Philadelphia ballot questions

All registered voters in Pennsylvania can vote yes or no on the four proposed amendments to the city charter, which appear as ballot questions on the May 2023 primary ballot. 

The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter is like a city constitution, overseeing the structure, roles and responsibilities of local government. It was created on April 17, 1951. When City Council proposes changes, voters decide whether to approve the amendments or not. 

The four ballot questions are: 

1. The question: Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to expand the requirements for annual minimum appropriations to the Budget Stabilization Reserve, more commonly known as the “rainy day fund”?

What it means: Voting yes means you approve a new requirement for the city to put a larger percentage of any annual budget surplus into the “rainy day fund.” Philadelphia did not allocate any money to the fund between 2011-2020, until the federal pandemic relief fund was made available in 2021.

2. The question: Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to create the Division of Workforce Solutions within the Department of Commerce and to define its duties?

What it means: Voting yes means support to create and fund a city agency focused on job training, placement, and workforce development. An existing agency focuses on support for employers; this new agency would focus on employees.

3. The question: Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to make employees of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission exempt from civil service hiring requirements?

What it means: Voting yes would support exempting the Citizens Police Oversight Commission from hiring according to merit-based requirements, in order to prevent staffing shortfalls. Voting no would support keeping civil service hiring requirements and addressing staffing issues in other ways.  

4. The question: Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to create the Office of the Chief Public Safety Director and to define its powers, duties and responsibilities?

What it means: Voting yes would support adding a new cabinet-level position overseeing public safety efforts across police, fire, prisons, emergency management departments, and other agencies. This official would be appointed by the mayor but approved by the City Council. Voting no would oppose creating this new position, which shares many duties with the existing Charter-mandated Managing Director. 

If you run into any problems, we want to hear about them!

Tell Votebeat what would make voting easier for you through our survey here.

If you have any other questions or concerns about voting in Philadelphia, please let us know! We can be reached at community@votebeat.org.

If you encounter or observe problems such as voter intimidation or possible voting rights violations at a polling place on Election Day, call the election hotline at 215-686-1590 or the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office at 215-686-9641 for assistance. 

If an official mail-in ballot dropbox is full, not functioning, or is damaged in any way, call 215-686-3469 or email vote@phila.gov

Heather J. Chin is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia and Brooklyn who covers civic life, health, the arts, and Asian America. She has contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, NBC News, PBS, Village Voice, Edible Brooklyn, and other publications. She can be reached at heatherjchin@gmail.com with story tips. 


This article is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit everyvoice-everyvote.org. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.

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