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Voting In The Time Of Coronavirus

Carolyn Kaster

What are election officials in Pennsylvania doing to prepare to run the April 28 presidential primary at the same time the state and nation are grappling with a public health emergency?

We asked, and about 30 responded. All but a couple of county elections officials reported that plans are already in place or are being developed. A dozen or so didn’t have details on the new measures, aside from stating that their offices will adhere to election guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and coordinate with state and federal health agencies. Several county officials explained that election-specific measures would be included in forthcoming pandemic plans.

The biggest impact on voters could be the relocation of polling places: Lebanon, Lancaster, Berks and other counties are researching alternative locations for precincts that currently can’t accommodate the CDC-recommended “public distancing” range (minimum four feet to six feet, ideally) or would be unusable due to other coronavirus-related concerns. That includes nursing homes that are also voting locations, and many are tightening access to protect residents from the virus, as WHYY’s Nina Feldman reports. Bans on visitors to nursing facilities in other states have already prompted polling places to move.

Relocating polling places is an extreme move. Pa. counties are more likely to stock precincts with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes so voters and poll workers can clean surfaces and machines.

The nation’s three largest voting machine vendors — Dominion Voting SystemsHart InterCivic and Election Systems & Software — issued cleaning guidance for their devices on Wednesday. And the day before, scanners made by now-defunct Diebold/Premier went down temporarily after clogging with hand sanitizer-dampened ballots during the March 10 municipal election in New Hampshire.

Some Pennsylvania counties say supplies are back-ordered, but expected to arrive before the primary. A handful — including Bradford, Allegheny, McKean, Montgomery and Lancaster counties — already have most of the supplies they expect to need because they started distributing those products to polling places years ago.

Centre and Montgomery counties will add non-latex gloves to the mix of sanitizing products at their polls. Same with Bradford, where election workers will have access to N-95 face masks as well. And Lancaster expects to have sanitary covers for headphones available to voters who need audio ballots, according to chief elections clerk Randall Wenger.

Voters will be encouraged to bring their own pens to fill out ballots in Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties.

Crawford County Election Director Gina Chatfield says she’s preparing for the Department of State to order an all vote-by-mail primary (though DoS isn’t even hinting at that prospect at this point).

Lancaster, Lebanon, York and Centre county officials say they’ll push mail-in ballots, particularly for elderly or immuno-compromised voters. Erie County even announced complimentary postage and a ballot drop-box last week (though public health concerns didn’t appear to be a factor there yet, according to this Erie Times-News post.).

Counties are also redoubling poll worker recruitment efforts, a response to the fact that many of these workers are seniors, York County spokesman Mark Walters explained in an email. No county election official reported that their poll workers are expressing concerns at this point, but having enough poll workers already is a struggle in counties throughout the commonwealth.

“It will take a comprehensive approach to address the shortages we are seeing here in general, although clearly the COVID-19 spread has brought that into sharp relief,” said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Centre will train county department heads and other personnel to work the polls in preparation for the same happening in Pa., County Commissioner Mike Pipe said.

The experience in states that have already held primaries this year shows that Pa. officials are right to be concerned. Poll workers stayed home en masse to avoid getting sick in parts of California and Texas on Super Tuesday, in some places due mainly to coronavirus concerns.

But virus fears didn’t seem to create too many problems in the six states that held presidential primaries on Tuesday. Absentee ballot rates, however, surged in all six, ABC notes in this post. Michigan poll workers stuck to a regimen of cleaning machines after every voter.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden canceled Tuesday night rallies in Ohio in light of the health crisis. Biden scheduled a press conference in Philadelphia instead, and Katie Meyer was there to cover his remarks for her debut story for WHYY.

Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is trying to get more money for states to cover absentee ballot costs that likely would spike in November if COVID’s still spreading, The Washington Post reports.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, PA Post.