By Neil Cosgrove
By now, given the Allegheny County Board of Elections’ announced intention to conduct a $400,000 media blitz, readers have been made quite aware that voting in the Pennsylvania Primary, now set for June 2nd, will look quite different than in the recent past.
When the state enacted a new election law last October, much of the discussion centered on the elimination of straight-party voting, where citizens could just press a button to select all candidates from a single party. But actual changes in who can vote and how will probably prove more significant in the long run.
First of all, a voter may register 15 days before an election and still be able to vote. Previously the requirement was registration at least 30 days prior.
Of even greater import is the introduction of mail-in voting, a first for Pennsylvania. In the past, absentee ballots required some submitted evidence that voters couldn’t be physically present at their precinct on election day. But now a citizen can simply request a mail-in ballot, just so long as that voter is registered, and submits the request by 5 p.m. seven days prior to election. Both traditional absentee ballots and mail-in ballots will be counted if in the hands of the Board of Elections when the polls close at 8 p.m. on Primary Day.
The new law’s insistence on a paper trail for each vote will also significantly change how voting is done at Allegheny County’s voting precincts on election day. Back in September the county agreed to a $20 million contract with Election Systems & Software that provides 1,650 new voting machines, software, updates, and training.
Under the new system, voters will receive a paper ballot upon checking into their precinct. “Fill in the oval to the left of the name of your choice,” reads the Board of Elections’ online instructions. “You must darken the oval completely, and do not make any marks outside of the oval.” Voters should ask for a new ballot if they “make a mistake or a stray mark.”
Once a ballot is completed, the voter will then insert it into a tabulating scanner. A “thank you for voting” message will indicate the ballot has been tabulated and the voter can leave.
The COVID-19 outbreak, apart from pushing the state legislature to move the primary from April 28 to June 2, has created worries about the extent of on-site voting. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that because so many poll workers are elderly, he will consider consolidating polling places. An election security expert at the University of Pittsburgh, Christopher Deluzio, told the Post-Gazette that the legislature’s decision to allow such consolidations, does create the dangers of “partisan game-playing” and voter suppression.
The bill that pushed back the primary date also eased county election officials’ concerns about tabulating mail-in ballots in a timely manner. Prior to the legislature’s most recent action, the counting of those ballots could not begin until polls closed at 8 p.m. on election day. Now the county can begin the tabulation of mail-ins at 7 a.m. on June 2nd.
Jon Delano of KDKA reports “that the county has purchased machines that can open 700 ballots a minute and scan 300 ballots a minute.” Those are maximums, of course, and with election day pressures in play no one can definitely say just how quickly votes will be tabulated.
The coronavirus epidemic appears to guarantee that there will be significantly more mail-in and absentee ballots than originally anticipated. As of this moment (the end of March), legislators are considering the allocation of funds that would allow every Pennsylvania county to send mail-in ballot applications to every voter.
Given so much uncertainty created by both the virus and new voting guidelines, the instant gratification of election night race-calling just may not happen, now and in the near future. Still, shouldn’t we be most concerned that everybody who wants to vote gets to vote, that participation in primary voting increases, and that paper trails increase Pennsylvanians’ trust in the electoral process? Given those potential benefits of our state’s new election law, should it really matter if results aren’t certain until June 3rd, or even June 4th?
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 3. April, 2020. All rights reserved.