Mail-in ballots spur fears in Pa. ELECTION 2020

Staff and wire reports | The Reading Eagle, May 29, 2020

Some county and state officials are warning that a flood of mailed-in ballots in Pennsylvania, fueled by fears of in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic, will cause problems in Tuesday’s primary election that must be fixed before they cause a disaster in November’s presidential election.

They are warning that there will be no way to produce timely election results in November unless the law changes to allow counties to process mailed-in ballots before Election Day. Even in Tuesday’s relatively low turnout primary election, election night results might be unlikely in closely contested races, they say.

“No one wants to be in the situation where the U.S. presidential race is coming down to Pennsylvania and there is a week or two delay on us in delivering a victor,” said state Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia.

Boyle plans to sponsor legislation to give counties more time to process the ballots, starting the Saturday before the election.

Boyle, with support from county election directors, pushed for a similar change in March when lawmakers voted to delay the primary election by five weeks to June 2. However, it lacked support from Republicans who control the House and Senate majorities.

Of more immediate concern is the question of whether voters can mail their ballots back to county election offices in time to be counted in Tuesday’s primary election. The deadline in state law is 8 p.m. that night.

But some ballots are still in the mail to voters, less than a week before the primary election. A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson said most first-class mail is delivered in two to five days, but the Postal Service recommends that voters mail their ballots at least one week before the deadline to have them delivered to county election officials.

Montgomery County asked the state Commonwealth Court for an emergency order Wednesday granting seven additional days for ballots postmarked no later than Election Day to arrive and be counted. Other efforts to that effect in lower courts have failed.

Some counties are working to provide alternatives, such as posting drop boxes in strategic locations, to voters who have not mailed in their ballots.

Count unclear

More than 1.8 million voters have requested a mail-in or absentee ballot, according to state officials. More than 730,000 have been returned, state figures show.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, said her estimate for the number of applications had been “blown out of the water” and that she at least hoped to work with lawmakers to change the law before the November election.

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said county election directors had been unified in urging state lawmakers to let them process mailed-in ballots before election day, even before the pandemic hit.

“We need to adjust our expectations that it’s going to be possible to have final results in the same manner that we’ve become accustomed to, unless we change the law for the general and future elections,” she said.

Tuesday is the first election in Pennsylvania in which the option of no-excuse mail-in ballots are available to voters following a sweeping election reform law signed in October by Wolf.

Rep. Garth Everett, R- Lycoming, who chairs the House committee that handles election issues, said the primary election will have to serve as a test tube of sorts for how counties can handle all the mail-in ballots.

The idea to let counties process mailed-in ballots before Election Day has run into concerns from Republicans that vote totals would leak out early, Everett said.

Everyone may need to get used to a longer wait time to get an election result, Everett said, and any problems in the primary election may solidify support among Republicans to change the law before November’s presidential election.

“This is going to be our experiment to see what we may need to fine-tune for the fall,” Everett said.

Accessibility at issue

Also, the Pennsylvania Department of State announced Thursday that it will provide accessible write in ballots to voters with disabilities who request one, in order to allow “blind and low-vision voters to vote privately and independently in Tuesday’s primary,” according to a press release.

A U.S. District Court judge issued an order on Wednesday mandating that the department offer an accessible write-in primary ballot for voters with disabilities who request one, the release said.

The Disability Rights Pennsylvania organization said a lawsuit spurring the preliminary injunction “alleges that Pennsylvania violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act by denying equal access to the absentee and mail-in ballot process to blind voters. The paper ballots used by Pennsylvania do not allow blind votes to vote secretly and independently, like other voters, and instead requires them to rely on sighted third-parties for assistance.”

Voters with disabilities can use screen reader software to vote at home, print their voted ballot and return it to their county elections office, the organization said, adding that “plaintiffs will press for an online ballot system that is fully accessible to blind voters for use in all future elections beginning in November 2020.”