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Ahead Of 2020 Primary And Amid Virus Fears, Organizers Strategize Around New Mail-In Voting Law

Gene J. Puskar

A new election law in Pennsylvania allows registered voters to cast their ballots by mail. It’s meant to make voting more accessible, which is why some organizers have been planning for months to use it to boost turnout. And as the coronavirus spreads, there may be unintended benefits of voting by mail.

'This is the opportunity that we’re going to capitalize on'

Elections in Pennsylvania can be close: Donald Trump won the state by just over 40,000 votes in 2016. Given margins like that, any change to voting rules could decide a race -- and two years ago, the ability to use the mail to vote absentee helped deliver a victory to Democrat Congressman Conor Lamb, in a district Trump carried easily.  

Lamb didn't declare his special-election win over Rick Saccone until after midnight -- “It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it,” he told supporters -- but he didn't waste any time before thanking organized labor in his speech. Unions supported Lamb heavily. and part of that effort involved encouraging members to vote absentee.

“We all waited for the absentee ballots to come,” said Allegheny Fayette Central Labor Council President Darrin Kelly.

Kelly represents a massive group of 100,000 union workers in Western Pennsylvania. And he knew that on Election Day, up to 700 of them would be working at a power plant in Indiana County and wouldn’t be able to get to the polls. So Kelly made sure that they voted absentee.

Lamb won by 755 votes.

“It was no coincidence that the absentee ballot numbers in Washington County, in Westmoreland County, in Allegheny County, favored the candidate of our choosing,” Kelly said. “Because we educated. We were the sole group that had a true, documented absentee ballot process and we’re so proud of it.”

And Kelly is already planning to expand those efforts, now that the opportunity to vote by mail is more accessible.

Thanks to Act 77, the new voting law that went into effect in January, Pennsylvanians don’t need to provide reason to vote by mail, as they did under the old absentee rules. Kelly plans to use the expansion to get even more of his members and their families to participate in the 2020 election.

“Whether it’s that they can’t get to the polls or traveling, it’s going to allow us to get to sections of our populations that haven’t been able to make a difference,” he said. “This is the opportunity that we’re going to capitalize on.”

Kelly said he’s pushing the vote-by-mail option through constant communication to remind members of upcoming deadlines and talk about how the process works.

“The biggest thing was trying to get people to change past habits, and that’s never easy.”

New System, New Questions  

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Kelly about the new rules.

“I have no plans to go out and push mail-in voting,” said Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

He’s not a fan of mail-in voting, and points to the Super Tuesday primaries in other states to explain why. A slew of candidates dropped out right before those primaries, which meant that a lot of people who had already mailed in their ballots had cast their votes for candidates who weren’t even running anymore.

Still, he said, "The Republican Party will use all methods allowable by law here to try and ensure that voters are heard. We have a lot of elderly in the Republican Party here, and if it’s more convenient for them, I absolutely encourage them to sign up for the mail-in ballots and vote that way.”

A heavy mail-in vote could involve logistical challenges.

DeMarco serves on the Allegheny County Board of Elections, which oversees the conduct of elections. At a February meeting, he and fellow board members Bethany Hallam and Rich Fitzgerald raised questions about how quickly results will become available with an influx of mail-in ballots.

Local officials are concerned with stipulations in the law, election workers aren’t allowed to begin opening ballots until polls close at 8 p.m. on election night. While the county's elections department has purchased equipment to count ballots quickly, DeMarco and others worry about delays.

“There’s a very real chance here that this November we’re not going to know who won the state of Pennsylvania,” DeMarco said. “We were told by the Department of State that up to 200,000 people may exercise mail-in ballot voting privileges here in Allegheny County. So you’d have 200,000 envelopes that need to be opened ... that’s a labor-intensive process.”

Other officials have expressed similar concerns around the state, and the state legislature is considering amending the law to allow mail-in ballots to be opened earlier.

Voting At A Distance

But some organizers already see benefits of voting by mail, especially in communities that are political battlegrounds.

Jamie Perrapato is the executive director of Turn PA Blue, a grassroots group working to flip state and local seats for Democrats. She said the group will focus more on encouraging mail-in voting than on voter registration. That's because she wants to focus on boosting turnout among Democrats, rather than unintentionally registering voters who might oppose her candidates.  

“These are purple districts,” she said. “Registering voters in our districts is not the best strategy because you may not be registering Democrats... You have to be much more strategic.”

But Perrapato sees another big advantage to mail-in voting.

“With all these fears about coronavirus, people are terrified they’re not going to have their chance to vote against Trump,” she said.

Voting by mail means you can vote and socially distance at the same time. And health experts have said the coronavirus is especially dangerous for the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. Perrapato notes those groups include some of the most engaged people she works with.

“Hopefully this will be a faint memory, or it could be a giant nightmare,” she said of the coronavirus. “I think people – with the uncertainty of that climate – just want to make sure that they get their chance to vote because they’ve been waiting so long for it.”

Pennsylvanians can apply for a mail-in ballot online at votespa.com. The deadline to apply is April 21 at 5 p.m.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.