The immediate impacts of COVID-19 and social distancing are changing the way election officials are gearing up for Pennsylvania’s primary election.
Gov. Tom Wolf on March 27 signed an order rescheduling the state primary from April 28 to June 2. And, besides giving officials and medical professionals an extra five weeks to sort out the coronavirus, it gives election officials more time to prepare for an influx of stay-at-home voters.
“We have been pushing people to vote by mail,” Michael L. Anderson, chief clerk and director of the Lebanon County Bureau of Elections and Voter Registration, said Monday. “If you have any concerns, that’s the way to do it. Obviously, the fewer people we have (at the polling places), the better.”
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Voters have the option to vote by mail-in ballot rather than going to their polling place on election day. Mail-in ballot applications will be accepted through Tuesday, May 26, according to votespa.com.
The county’s voter registration office is closed at least until April 6, Anderson noted. Although workers are sometimes in the office, he said, the doors are not open to the public, and it’s unlikely anyone will be available to answer the phones.
The best way to apply for a mail-in ballot, he said, is online.
The application and instructions for use are at votespa.com. People can also send an email requesting an application to [email protected]. Once the office reopens, people can call 717-228-4428 or send a request by mail to the Bureau of Elections at the Municipal Building, Room 209, 400 S. 8th St., Lebanon, PA 17042-6794.
However, Anderson said, people shouldn’t expect to receive their application immediately because the bureau’s mailroom is also shut down.
“We don’t have a way to get everything stamped and sent out,” he said, “so don’t expect it in two or three days.”
When the office closed on March 19, he said, they had already received more than 900 applications. He expects a lot more have come in since then.
The application allows elections officials to verify voters are who they say they are, Anderson explained. The outer envelope for returned ballots will confirm their identity, he said, while the inner envelopes will not identify voters in any way. Once the barcode on the outer envelopes have been scanned to acknowledge that each vote has been received, he said, they will be opened and the “secrecy envelopes” will be shuffled so no one knows who cast which vote.
Envelopes will be locked in a vault until it’s time to count them, he said.
“Nothing is done to ballots here in our office,” he added. “Everything is done in a public meeting … probably in the commissioners’ meeting room. Anyone from the public can come in to view exactly what we do. It’s very transparent.”
Because the primary date was pushed back, Anderson said he anticipates his office will have no trouble processing all requests in time.
“Pushing it back five weeks was a step in the right direction,” he said. “The extended period of time will help.”
However, “unless the commissioners decide to bring extra people in,” he’s less comfortable with the office’s ability to count all of the ballots by the end of election day.
Mail-in ballots will arrive in double-sealed envelopes, Anderson explained. Regulations previously prohibited his staff from opening the envelopes and preparing them to be scanned and counted until 8 p.m. on election day.
To give them more time, he said, the start time was moved back to 7 a.m., but he hopes he’ll get approval to start counting on the preceding Monday.
Otherwise, he said, results probably won’t be available at least until the following Wednesday, or possibly Thursday.
“I don’t see how we can process them and have a count on election night,” he said. “It’s a presidential election. Our phone rings off the hook. …. It’s usually a very busy, nonstop day for us anyway.”
According to information published at votespa.com, Pennsylvania’s official voter information website, the mail-in ballot differs from absentee ballots. The latter is for people who will be out of the municipality on election day — such as college students, men and women in the military and non-felony inmates — or who have a disability or illness that prevents them from getting to the polls. The new mail-in ballot, spurred by coronavirus concerns, is for anyone else who prefers not to go physically to the polls.
A person must be registered to vote to qualify for a mail-in ballot.
Applications for the June 2 primary election must be received by the county office by 5 p.m. May 26.
According to votespa.com, registered voters can apply for a mail-in ballot online with a valid Pennsylvania driver’s license or photo ID from PennDOT. Applications can also be printed from the website, filled out and mailed to the county elections office, or a person can request an application in person once the office reopens to the public.
Once a voter’s application is accepted, that person will get a mail-in ballot with instructions for filling it out and submitting it to be counted.
Ballots, once filled out, signed and dated, must be placed in a secrecy envelope to maintain voter anonymity, then placed in a signed outer envelope that must be received by the county elections office by the close of the polls at 8 p.m. on election day.
“If you’re mailing it, make sure you mail it at least three days before the election or drop it off at our office,” Anderson said. “The sooner the better.”
Voters also can apply for an annual mail-in ballot, so they don’t have to reapply for each election.
Anderson said he believes mail-in voting “probably will become new norm.”
“We do expect that, eventually, most of the voters will vote through this method,” he said. “We want people to vote, but also to be safe — for themselves and for the poll workers. … I don’t think it’s going to be sustainable to keep precinct-level voting in the future.”
However, he added, “some directors are already pushing” for all votes to be counted by mail. “I’m not sure if I’m on the bandwagon until we see how things pan out,” he said.
At this point, Anderson said, he doesn’t know if there will be any changes made to the polling places to accommodate coronavirus concerns.
“I guess we’re going to see what happens,” he said. “Obviously, the president has extended (social distancing guidelines) to April 30. That’s very optimistic. We’ll see what happens when we get closer to the date. We probably won’t address that until May … and we see if we have all 60 (polling place) locations available to us.
“I don’t want to come up with a huge plan and then have everything change — hopefully for the better, not worse.”
Just in case, he said, his office has bought extra supplies for sanitizing the polling places. Voters also can bring their own pens, as long as they use black or blue ink, to avoid sharing them, he said.
For now, Anderson encouraged voters to be patient as elections officials work out the kinks.
“Be flexible,” he said. “It’s unprecedented times, so some of the things we’d like to have in place, we can’t at this point.”
To apply online for an absentee or mail-in ballot, click here.
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