Election officials “boiling over at the inaction” in Harrisburg
Some state lawmakers want to amend SB422, originally intended to establish an Election Law Advisory Board, to delay Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary, as well as put new rules in place to let counties get started earlier processing an anticipated deluge of mailed ballots.
Both changes would respond to what election officials say is the impossibility of conducting the primary next month using the standard election playbook.
For one, the continuing coronavirus outbreak presents risks to poll workers and voters alike. And already, there are increasing numbers of poll workers (and physical locations that host the polls) preemptively saying they will not be available to work that day.
“This doesn’t even take into account the normal call offs that we will see every election from poll workers for health reasons, unrelated to coronavirus,” said Sarah Seymour, elections director in Blair County.
The House State Government Committee is scheduled to meet this afternoon. The plan, as of Sunday, is to get the amended SB422 to Gov. Tom Wolf by Friday, according to committee Chairman Garth Everett (R-Lycoming).
Everett spoke on Sunday shortly before a late afternoon conference call with the Wolf administration and other lawmakers to iron out the final details. But early Sunday evening, Gov. Tom Wolf said during a press briefing that no deal had been reached with the legislature to postpone the presidential nominating contest.
“I think the members of the legislature understand that counties have been asking for a postponement, that it’s tough to train poll workers who are reluctant to come in for training,” Wolf said. “And so, this is a real issue. And the legislature, to its credit, is working very hard. We’re having a robust conversation. but we have not had an agreement at this point.”
It’s unclear what happened. Reached after Wolf spoke, Everett said plans hadn’t changed. And late Sunday evening, The Inquirer reported that there is in fact a deal, at least among the legislature’s party leaders. Rank-and-file legislators still need to be consulted, the newspaper reported.
A draft of the amendment provided to PA Post late Sunday night would push back this year’s primary until June 2. It also would relax rules for moving and consolidating polling locations, and allow counties to start processing absentee and mailed ballots as early as 21 days before the election (versus when polls open, as current rules require).
County elections officials have been adamant: “If we do not have poll workers, the polls will not open,” wrote Shari Brewer, elections director in Butler County, in an email. “Lawmakers need to realize that. They need to make a decision NOW.”
The frustration expressed by Brewer and her counterparts throughout Pennsylvania isn’t just in response to the political impasse over delaying the primary. An increasing number of county election officers believes the state should start planning now to run the primary via mail (a few from Pa. signed this letter to Congress asking for funding to help).
Seven counties so far have affirmed they’re presently capable of handling an all-mail election (which is the subject of another bill, but not in the SB422 amendment draft).
Other counties would need time to prepare and haven’t committed to being able to do so by June 24, the alternative primary date suggested by officials in six counties that are home to more than a third of Pennsylvania voters.
There’s another good reason to shift to an all-mail primary: Holding in-person votes at thousands of precincts across the state would divert supplies of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other hygiene items needed at hospitals and by essential government personnel, such as law enforcement officers and public works staff, who cannot work remotely, said Lycoming County Elections Director Forrest.
“I am really boiling over at the inaction,” Lehman said Sunday. “I have never seen counties closer to failure in their mission to serve the public interest or democracy than right now, with this election. It’s not the counties’ fault, but it’s the unfortunate confluence of Act 77 and equipment replacement and coronavirus. It’s like this perfect storm.