Poll worker Dina Sebold waits for voters at Cecelia Snyder Middle School in Bensalem during a special election for a vacant seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Hand sanitizer and wipes were made available to voters, many of whom brought their own pens.
Emily is a reporter and newsletter producer for statehouse accountability news organization PA Post. She was the senior reporter for statewide public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads. Previously, she covered city hall for PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.), was a watchdog and city hall reporter at The Press of Atlantic City and reported for the Northwest Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
Officials in more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties home to nearly 3 million voters are calling for an all-mail primary election.
These officials, who serve more than a third of the state’s registered voters, say they know there’s a chance that a June 2 primary with in-person voting will be a problem if coronavirus restrictions are still in place. So they want the state to decide soon whether the election will proceed normally, be switched to mail-only, or be postponed again.
On one side are election officials who believe voting entirely by mail would be safest and most practical. Right away, it would resolve problems some counties say they’re having in recruiting and retaining enough poll workers to staff voting locations. Counties also report that venues that host polling places are declining to open their doors for the primary.
On the other side are officials who say their counties are happy to proceed with in-person voting, but any change to an all-mail election should happen as soon as possible to avoid last-minute chaos.
Then there’s the fact that in-person voting during a pandemic demands that poll workers be provided with sanitary supplies and personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as gloves and masks. Already, counties report they’re struggling to obtain such items.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, counties were facing significant challenges in organizing this year’s primary, given the high turnout presidential election is happening at the same time that Pennsylvania is rolling out historic election code reforms andnew voting machines. Adding the need to plan for in-person or all-mail voting while the coronavirus outbreak continues multiplies the challenge facing elections directors.
“That is the real kick in the teeth,” said Lycoming County Elections Director Forrest Lehman. “Our attention and resources are divided. We are having to run two election paradigms at the same time.”
Lehman and some of his counterparts across the state say absentee and mailed ballot requests are up. That was anticipated with state laws changing to allow voters to request one for any reason; now, election directors are encouraging that option (even if they aren’t pushing for an all-mail contest) — and many voters are leaning that way — due to the public health crisis.
In Lycoming County, Lehman says his office recently took out a full-page newspaper ad urging people to vote by mail.
“We got 100 or more calls in response that day from people who wanted us to mail them an application. Older folks who might not have internet access,” Lehman said.
He said he’s considering another ad that’s simply a blank mailed ballot application.
Emily Previti / PA Post
Lycoming County Director of Elections Forrest Lehman testifies before the Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee Jan. 27, 2020.
Allegheny County Council, meanwhile, is set to consider an ordinance today that would send mailed ballot applications with prepaid return postage to all registered voters, Pittsburgh City Paper reports.
The vote on the ordinance comes after an Allegheny commissioner called for an all-mail primary last week. On the other side of the state, Chester and Montgomery counties also sent a letter asking for an all-mail primary to Gov. Tom Wolf and their state legislators.
Union County Director Greg Katherman says he wants an all-mail vote but would need a month’s notice to make it happen. Katherman acknowledged the mixed opinion among his counterparts across the state, but dismissed concerns voiced by President Trump and other elected officials that vote-by-mail elections are susceptible to high levels of fraud.
“It just makes sense at this point: you weigh [voter] fraud or you weigh the potential death. Where does that fall on your scale? To me, that’s a no-brainer,” Katherman says.
Huntingdon County officials last weekfired off a letter telling Wolf and Huntingdon’s legislative delegation that an “all mail-in system is the only way that we can adequately preserve the right to vote for citizens under our jurisdiction.” They urged state leaders to “take action quickly to allow counties ample time to prepare.”
Most of Huntington’s poll workers won’t commit to staffing the June 2 primary, says Election Director Tammy Thompson.
The county also had to cancel training for new voting equipment slated, since “getting people together to do that is impossible right now,” Thompson said.
“Some people have talked about doing video and video training, but many of our poll workers are elderly and most won’t have access to a computer or don’t feel comfortable with that kind of training,” she said.
More than 20 counties – including Allegheny and Delaware – face the same challenge of introducing new voting machines to poll workers and voters alike.
Fayette County Elections Director Larry Blosser said his county isn’t prepared to host in-person voting, lacking enough supplies and sufficient commitments from poll workers and location hosts.
“We had to cancel training. I can’t locate hand sanitizer anywhere, other than maybe as part of a kit. But those cost an arm and a leg,” Blosser said. “They’re going to have to change the date.”
Sabrina Backer, chief clerk and elections director in Venango County, says the state should hold off on any major decisions.
“We should wait until closer to the election and find out what status of coronavirus is, and then get a recommendation from [state Health Secretary] Dr. [Rachel] Levine and go with that,” Backer said.
Backer also acknowledged that Venango’s population is relatively small, making it easier for the county to adapt to last-minute changes in election plans.
Many county officials interviewed for this story, however, say any action by state officials needs to happen soon, whether it’s Wolf taking unilateral action to change the format of the election or postponing it again (he said earlier this week he hadn’t been considering a further delay), or the Department of State firming up its tentative commitment to provide gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and other supplies to counties to use at the polls.
But some also realize the state might have to adjust at the last minute if public health warrants it.
“If … it’s too dangerous on June 2 and that social distancing requirements must continue, then as difficult as it would be for counties to administer we’ve got to figure out a way to conduct an all-mail election with some vote centers to accommodate voters who don’t get a ballot or who have accessibility needs,” Mercer County election director Jeff Greenburg wrote in an email.
In that event, Greenburg says, Wolf should order school districts to serve as voting centers.
“It would be easy to let voters know they’re voting at the high school gym instead of the current plan that would require us to send voters who knows where,” Greenburg wrote. “Those locations have sufficient parking, accessibility and space to ensure as much social distancing as possible.”
Emily Previti / PA Post
Mercer County Elections Director Jeff Greenburg talks about preparing for implementing a new voting system and many other changes to the elections process. To his right, an oversized check for election expenses. Mercer and other counties are in line for more money to help defray their costs for voting machine acquisitions.
But if that’s the direction dictated by the pandemic, state officials need to heed that with a “decision this week so that we could adequately prepare,” Cozze wrote in an email Thursday afternoon.
“Other states that have shifted to this type of voting took several years to implement it properly – just over a month’s time would make it difficult for any county to implement flawlessly,” she wrote.
A few hours later, Northampton County council members echoed Cozze’s sentiments as part of an extremely brief discussion during their meeting. They noted that the public push by some counties for an all-mail primary has continued discussion of the possibility among state officials in Harrisburg.
“Yeah, well, they’re all talk out there,” said council president Ron Heckman. “Who knows where it will end up.”
Heckman, who’s in his 60s, joked at one point that “it’s no secret” he is in the age group most vulnerable to the coronavirus. But he said he intends to vote in person June 2.
For now, county elections officials are waiting for a signal from Gov. Tom Wolf, who so far hasn’t tipped his hand about whether the primary will go ahead per usual.
Earlier this week, Wolf said he “doesn’t know what it would take” for him to ask for an all-mail election, but he said he’s “considering it very seriously.”
For Lehman in Lycoming County, that decision is a heavy one.
“What is an in-person election even going to look like in Pennsylvania, given the losses that counties have suffered of facilities and poll workers? And how would it be in the interests of the electorate and in the interest of public health to do it that way?” Lehman said. “I’m also starting to think about the moral implications of asking our poll workers to serve under these circumstances knowing their age, and their vulnerability. That is starting to weigh heavily on my conscience.”