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Governor Moves Deadline To Count Mail-In Ballots Amid Unrest

Matt Rourke
Dave Turnier processes mail-in ballots at at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa., prior to the primary election, Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Amid protests over George Floyd’s death across Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday that he is ordering Philadelphia and five other counties to keep counting ballots in the primary election that arrive by mail for up to seven days after Tuesday's 8 p.m. deadline.

Wolf made the announcement during a brief appearance in Philadelphia, as the state prepared for a primary election like none other in its history Tuesday. The governor's office said that Wolf's order will be limited to Philadelphia and Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie and Montgomery counties.

Ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday’s 8 p.m. deadline. The new deadline to receive them and count them, under Wolf’s executive order, would be 8 p.m. on June 9.

Already, counties are struggling with an unexpected flood of mail-in ballots and the difficulty of maintaining polling places amid the pandemic. Meanwhile, many are rolling out new voting machines ordered by Wolf as a bulwark against election meddling.

“Voting by mail, the counting will continue for seven days after tomorrow,” Wolf said. “I can't do anything about the election day, but I am extending the time to actually get votes in.”

Courts until now had rejected efforts by various parties to extend the deadline, and a case was still pending Monday concerning Bucks County.

Charlie O’Neill, a state Republican Party spokesperson, said the party's lawyers were considering Wolf’s announcement.

More than 1.8 million voters applied for a mail-in or absentee ballot, smashing expectations by state officials. But some officials have said they worried that voters wouldn't receive their ballot in time to return it by the 8 p.m. election day deadline.

Delaware County, which already sent out approximately 80,000 ballots, said it was still sending out 6,000 ballots on Monday, and that another 400 would not be mailed to voters who had requested them due to "timing and staffing constraints."

Voters who do not receive their ballot in the mail can vote provisionally at their polling location. In addition, Delaware County, Philadelphia and some other counties were providing ballot drop-off spots.

The unexpected volume of mail-in ballot requests has proven to be a challenge for county elections officials, and they are warning that election results are likely to be delayed well past election night.

The election was postponed from April 28 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, Pennsylvania voters have returned about 1.1 million ballots by mail of the 1.8 million requested.

Polling places in some counties have been moved or consolidated to cope with a pandemic-driven drop in election volunteers, and special social distancing rules will be in place at the still-open locations.

Twenty-two counties, or about one-third, will use new voting systems for the first time, while this election marks the debut of no-excuse mail-in ballots under a law approved by Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers last fall.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The result of the highest profile contests on the ballot are a foregone conclusion, as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are the presumptive major-party nominees.

The only statewide races are for the “row offices” — attorney general, auditor general and treasurer.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro is unopposed in seeking his party's nomination, as is Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh for the GOP nod. There is a six-candidate Democratic primary and a lone Republican seeking the nominations for attorney general, as incumbent Eugene DePasquale is term-limited. Unopposed in the treasurer primary are incumbent Democrat Joe Torsella and Republican Stacy Garrity.

All 18 of the state's members of the U.S. House of Representatives are seeking reelection, although only two have primary opposition from within their own party — suburban Philadelphia Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and Pittsburgh Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat.

In the Legislature, all 203 House seats and half the 50-member Senate are up this year. There are 17 retirements in the state House, which currently has a 110-93 Republican majority, and two in the Senate, where the GOP, with one independent, holds a 29-21 margin.

Primary voters will also pick delegates and alternates for the two major parties’ presidential nominating conventions.