Scientist Reflects: Mail-In Ballots Address Barriers to Voting

October 18, 2022 | 4:57 pm
hand dropping a mail-in ballot at a mailboxCindy Shebley/flickr
Tamara L. Cohen
Biomechanics Consultant

As we approach the mid-term election, I find myself thinking about what I was doing this time last year. I was working non-stop as a forensic biomechanical engineer, taking a break only for jury duty. Then, without warning, I got sick.

In October of 2021, unbeknownst to me, I contracted Lyme disease. After suffering from unexplainable headaches and fevers, I woke up one morning unable to move the left side of my face. I ended up in the ER and spent several days in the hospital where I was diagnosed and began treatment. Thanks to the amazing care of my doctors and staff, I recovered.

Incidentally, my hospital stay overlapped with Pennsylvania’s Municipal General Election Day. I remember feeling resigned to the idea that I would not be able to vote. It was important to me to vote in my local election, as I had already voted in the primary that spring. The outcome of the election would have a direct effect on me, my local community in Philadelphia, and my state. I rely on those I vote for to give me a voice on how I want to live, work, play, be cared for, and care for others. Not knowing how I would vote or not being able to cast my ballot made me feel silenced and unrepresented.

Then, as if by telepathy, a volunteer came into my hospital room, asked if I was registered to vote and if I would like an emergency absentee ballot. She explained that she, as a designated agent, would return my completed ballot to an official return location. I didn’t even know this was an option! Thankfully, I was already a registered voter and was beyond grateful this medical student volunteer helped me vote in a time when I was physically unable.

Accessible voting measures make democracy accessible

I entered the field of biomechanical engineering because I wanted to help improve quality of life of individuals with disabilities. As someone who regularly engaged with individuals with disabilities, my hospital voting experience made me think further about those with additional physical barriers to the polls, and thus how essential mail-in ballots are for certain communities and individuals.

Those of us in states that allow mail-in ballots, like Pennsylvania, have the option to use these alternative means of voting. However, some people depend on access to mail-in ballots in order to participate in our democracy. Mail-in ballots and other accessible measures provide these individuals and communities the opportunity for democratic engagement and electoral participation. In essence, these measures provide these individuals and communities the means to increase their representation in regard to voter turnout.

You never know when you will need to be a beneficiary of these programs.

Being a scientist, I did my research to learn more about the process and requirements for mail-in ballots in my state, Pennsylvania. Here’s what I learned:

  • You must be registered to vote before applying for a mail-in or absentee ballot. Any qualified voter may apply for a mail-in ballot without a reason.
  • You must have a Pennsylvania Driver’s License or PennDOT issued photo ID card number when applying, or the last four digits of your Social Security Number.
  • You can elect to be on the annual mail-in ballot request list in order to automatically receive ballots for the elections within the year.
  • Accessible remote ballot marking is available for voters with disabilities who can use screen readers and assistive devices to vote a mail-in ballot privately and independently.

Things happen in life that we can’t always anticipate. By planning early, registering to vote, and voting early with mail-in ballots, you can have a stress-free voting experience.

Voters in Pennsylvania must register by October 24

Now, here’s what you need to know for the upcoming November 8th election if you live in Pennsylvania.

  • Mail-in/absentee ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. on November 8, 2022.
  • In the event of sudden illness, hospitalization, disability, or absence from your municipality, an Emergency Absentee Ballot may be requested after 5:00 p.m. on the Tuesday before the election (November 1, 2022).
    • Emergency absentee ballots must be returned to the County Election Board by 8 p.m. on Election Day (November 8, 2022).
    • An application for an authorized representative is required in the event the voter cannot pick up or return the emergency absentee ballot themselves.

If you live outside of Pennsylvania use a trusted source like to register (if your state deadline hasn’t already passed), check your registration status, request a mail-in ballot, learn about early voting, and find your polling location or ballot drop boxes in your area.

Tamara L. Cohen works as a biomechanics consultant in forensic engineering. Cohen earned a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a bachelors of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. She conducts biomechanical and human factors investigations and analyses of fall-related accidents. She is committed to providing objective, scientifically-based analyses and opinions regarding pedestrian safety, regulatory compliance, human tolerance, as well as incident and injury mechanisms.

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