Three Observations on the Pennsylvania Department of State

1. First, a personal anecdote. Now that we are living in Canada, my wife and I need to vote by absentee ballot. About a month ago we completed our Absentee Ballot Applications and sent them to the Centre County Election Office as required. Yesterday, we received emails from the Pennsylvania Department of State Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation informing us that our electronic ballots were “available for download.” Below is the text of the email I received:

Dear Voter:

Because you indicated on your absentee ballot application that you would like to receive your ballot electronically for the upcoming election, this notice is being provided to inform you that your ballot is now available for download.  You may access it by logging into the SURE Public Portal website at  If you have already created an account on this website, you may log in now to access your ballot.

If you have not already created an account on the SURE Public Portal website, you will need to do so by following the steps below:  

  • Go to and select the ‘Login’ link.
  • Select the ‘PAPowerPort’ link located within the page to register.
  • Create an account by completing the registration page and [Register]. Note: Please register with the same first name and last name that are listed on your voter registration record. 
  • Return to and select the ‘Login’ link.
  • Enter the User Name and Password created during the PAPowerPort registration process and [Login].
  • The first time you log in to the SURE Public Portal, you will be asked to provide your date of birth, county of residence, and city of residence as listed on your voter registration record.  Enter the requested information and [Submit].The ‘Welcome to the SURE Portal’ page will appear.  Confirm your voter registration information by selecting the ‘Continue’ link.

After logging into the SURE Public Portal website and accessing your voter registration information, your ballot can be downloaded by clicking on ‘Absentee Ballot Status’ on the left navigation bar, and then on the [Download Ballot] button for the upcoming election.  (If you are not able to access your ballot by following these instructions, please contact your CountyBoard of Elections for assistance.  Contact information for your County Board of Elections is available at  For security reasons, you will be required to enter the following Correspondence ID Number: 93462214.  You may wish to write this number down or Copy it now and Paste it into the Correspondence ID Number field when prompted. 

Your absentee ballot will open as a PDF document that contains several pages, including the ballot page(s) with instructions, voter declaration/affirmation, mailing instructions, and envelope template.  Please read the instructions that accompany the ballot carefully.

If the absentee ballot is a special write-in ballot, you will need the district information from your voter record below to complete your ballot.  The list of candidates who are currently qualified to be on the ballot in these districts is available here:


To submit the ballot:

1. Once you have completed your ballot, fold and place it in a blank envelope and seal – this will be the Secrecy Envelope for the ballot. PLACE ONLY THE VOTED BALLOT IN THE SECRECY ENVELOPE AND DO NOT WRITE ON THE SECRECY ENVELOPE.

2. Insert the sealed Secrecy Envelope and the completed Voter’s Declaration/Affirmation into another envelope and seal.

3. If possible, print or affix the postage-paid envelope template provided with your ballot on the outer envelope.  This envelope template contains the correspondence ID number, which identifies for your county election official that the envelope contains your ballot. 

4. If mailed using the provided envelope template, your ballot does not require postage when sent via U.S. Mail, APO/FPO or Diplomatic Pouch.  If mailed in a foreign postal system, international airmail postage must be affixed.  In the return address section in the upper left hand corner of the envelope template, enter your name and current complete military or overseas mailing address.  In the “TO” section in the center of the envelope template, enter the name and mailing address of your County Board of Elections.  This must be the same election official to whom you sent your application for an absentee ballot.  Contact information for your County Board of Elections is available at

Voted ballots must be postmarked no later than the day before the election and received by the County Board of Elections no later than 7 days after the election.  If you have difficulty accessing your ballot and are concerned that you may not return it in time to meet this deadline, you may always use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (available here:

After mailing your absentee ballot, you may confirm your county’s receipt of the ballot by logging into the SURE Public Portal website ( and clicking on ‘Absentee Ballot Status’ on the left navigation bar or by contacting your County Board of Elections.

Pennsylvania Department of State
Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation 

Setting aside the potential user experience problems inherent to this process, even after one jumps through all these hoops it doesn’t work. Despite being registered to vote, it is not possible to download an absentee ballot. At this point, we called the Centre County Election Office, and learned this happens all the time! Now we are waiting on paper ballots to be mailed to us. According to our informant, these problems with the absentee voting system are well-known and longstanding, but the Pennsylvania Department of State has so far neglected to fixed them.

2. Second, a larger observation. Obviously, the problems I’ve experienced firsthand with Pennsylvania’s absentee voting system are a mere fly in the ointment compared with what some see as recent attempts to suppress voter turnout. In fact, Pennsylvania’s Voter Identification law faces a crucial courtroom decision today that will impact potentially hundreds of thousands of registered voters. For a concise and accessible history of Pennsylvania’s controversial legislation, see this New York Times blog post.

3. Third, a scholarly frustration. As part of a research project I have been trying to answer a seemingly simple question: How many people were registered to vote in each of Pennsylvania’s municipalities over time, specifically, for the time period 2004-2011? I have been alarmed to find that such data are apparently unavailable. The most granular information provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State Voter Registration Statistics Archives is at the county level. But voting in Pennsylvania takes place on a much more local basis, and so, one would think that data reflecting the granularity of this underlying phenomena would and should be available.