HARRISBURG — Election watchdogs say state should fully-embrace mail-in voting because voters who went to the polls had to navigate confusing polling place relocations, lines and poll workers struggling with multiple changes.
Suzanne Alameida, interim executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania said that an an Election Protection hotline got 1,000 phone calls during Tuesday’s primary and more than half of them were from people concerned because their polling place had been moved.
Election officials across the state moved and consolidated polling places when the date of the election was moved from April to June and as the counties struggled to staff voting locations because workers were unwilling to show up during the pandemic.
Alameida said that while some counties sent voters postcards advising them of polling changes, not all did, and in some cases, when voting locations were closed, there were no signs notifying voters about where the polling location had been moved to, she said.
Late Tuesday night, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said that the problems with moved or consolidated polling places shouldn’t arise again in November because those changes were part of the effort to scramble to adjust when the primary was moved.
It wasn’t the only problem that voters faced, Alameida said. In urban areas where the pandemic combined with civil unrest, voters had to navigate road closures, protesting crowds and police responses en route to their poll locations, she said.
Erin Kramer, Executive Director, One Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh-based advocacy organization, said that workers in the consolidated polling locations seemed unprepared for the Primary Election.
“Consolidated voting centers were chaotic and would be disastrous in November,” she said. “The only reason it looked normal was because of the incredibly low turnout.”
With the problems faced by people who voted in-person, the groups said they think the state should take steps to make mail-in voting more popular.
Tuesday’s primary was the first time that voters in Pennsylvania had the opportunity to get mail-in ballots and more than 1.8 million people applied for mailed-ballots, according to state data.
Allegheny and Luzerne counties both sent mail-in ballot applications to all registered members of the Republican and Democratic parties, said Ivan Garcia, civic engagement director, Make the Road Pennsylvania In Luzerne County, In Luzerne County, 26 percent of voters requested mailed ballots and in Allegheny County, 32 percent asked for mailed ballot applications.
That was a higher percentage than in other counties like Berks and Lehigh that didn’t send applications to everyone, he said.
“This is a step we know is possible,” Garcia said. “We have the data” that it works.
While Garcia said the counties should send ballot applications to all voters, Ray Murphy state coordinator of Keystone Votes, went a step further and said the state Legislature should pass legislation that would authorize counties to provide mail ballots to all voters. He also called the General Assembly to authorize counties to create vote centers that are better equipped to handle in-person voting and use drop boxes to allow people with mailed-ballots to deliver them rather than put them in the mail.
“State officials and election directors should be commended for the work they did. Administering elections isn’t easy in the best of times. The challenges they faced during this Primary Election were monumental, and they rose to the challenge and did the best they could,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes. “Nevertheless, we simply can’t ignore some of the real problems that this election exposed, and we should rise up to face them as well by crafting the reforms we need before November to ensure our General Election isn’t a disaster.”
State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny County, introduced legislation in April that would have required counties to provide mailed ballots to all voters, but the legislation hasn’t moved out of the state government committee.
That Senate committee did hold a hearing in late April in which the issue of voting-by-mail was explored.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he thinks vote-by-mail creates an opportunity for fraud.
Murphy said research based on voting-by-mail in other states has shown that it doesn’t provide an advantage to either party and that it can save money for rural communities that wouldn’t need to have as many little-used polling locations.
“We think it’s a non-partisan issue,” he said.