Lawmakers begin debate over election code changes to delay primary due to coronavirus outbreak

Initial ideas don't include all-mail and June 23 date that some election directors want.

  • Emily Previti

Pennsylvania House members are expected to move today on amending the state’s election code to delay the April 28 presidential primary until June.

One amendment filed Monday by House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) would create temporary rules to:

  • Move the primary to June 2 and adjust some related deadlines (campaign finance reporting, etc.) accordingly. 
  • Allow polling place consolidation without court approval. Counties would have to post new locations at least 15 days ahead of the election online and at main elections offices
  • Let election judges work in districts other than their own 
  • Establish procedures for voting at an establishment that serves alcohol at times other than when voting will occur.

PittCyber’s Chris Deluzio flagged the polling place consolidation process outlined in the legislation as a potential problem 

“I certainly understand the need to adapt to the public health crisis we are facing, but am worried that some of the amendment’s proposals could disenfranchise voters,” Deluzio said. 

It doesn’t require officials to directly notify voters of polling place changes, for one, he said. 

It’s also unclear whether counties could move polling places to locations outside an election district, “potentially opening the door for boards of elections to target certain communities by making them travel across a county to [vote],” Deluzio said.

Advocacy group Keystone Votes expressed similar concerns in a statement issued this morning. 

Evertt’s other amendment includes some of the same provisions as his first and would also:

  • Define the process by which voters can vote in person at the polls if they had requested an absentee or mail-in ballot but have not cast the ballot OR who are concerned a mailed ballot might not arrive in time.
  • Let counties start processing mailed ballots 21 days ahead of the election, and require officials to post public notice on the county website 48 hours before pre-canvassing meetings.
  • Prohibit disclosure of pre-canvass vote tallies before polls close on Election Day.
  • Forbid challenges of absentee/mail-in ballots based on the voter allegedly casting a ballot in the “wrong” category. 

A separate amendment filed by Minority Committee Chairman Kevin Boyle (D-Philadelphia) is similar to a bill he introduced recently that would provide $40 million to send mail-in ballot applications to every Pennsylvania voter for the primary. 

Boyle’s proposal doesn’t require voting by mail, however. Some election officials are pushing exactly for that — a mail-only primary. Or a longer delay.

Butler County Election Director Shari Brewer said “it is not that easy in any election year to find poll workers and the COVID-19 virus has made it nearly impossible.”

“This country is in a very serious situation and serious measures have to be taken to protect the safety, health, and welfare of our citizens. The safest way to hold the primary during this time is to go to an all-mail ballot,” Brewer said. “It will be a lot of work for county election departments. But it’s the best and safest solution to the issues at hand: social distancing and the shortage of poll workers and poll sites.” 

Most poll workers are between the ages of 65 and 80, as are many who have offered to fill in for any absences, Brewer said. 

“Given the increasing concern among poll workers showing up to work, I fear we won’t be able to deliver a normal election,” said Dauphin County Elections Director Jerry Feaser. 

Dauphin is one of 17 counties where new voting systems will be used for the first time during the primary. 

Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz says an in-person primary is vital to introduce voters to the new devices. Otherwise, voters would first use the machines in the November general election, when turnout is likely to be highest.

Some states, however, have already started eyeing an all-mail general election or relaxing rules for mailed ballots.

 

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct a typo and information about Snyder County.

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