Your Questions About Voting In The Pennsylvania Primary, Answered
The June 2 primary in Pennsylvania is occurring during an exceptional event — the coronavirus pandemic.
Below, we’ve compiled our answers to commonly asked questions about voting changes for the 2020 primary, background on what led to some of the major changes, and what Pennsylvanians might expect to see changed for the Nov. 3 general election.
Where do we vote?
State and local officials have been encouraging people to vote by mail. The deadline to request an absentee or mail-in ballot was Tuesday, May 26, and Pennsylvania’s election code requires officials to process every application received by that deadline.
Those ballots must be back to county elections offices before 8 p.m. on Election Day. If your ballot arrived close to the deadline, you can drop it off at your local county elections office. Some counties are also offering drop boxes.
If you haven’t received your ballot, you can cast a provisional one in person at the polls. That’s also an option for people who’ve sent their ballot back but are concerned it won’t arrive before the deadline.
Election officials keep provisional ballots separate from the others and then assess after the polls close whether a provisional vote should be counted. Provisional ballots are cast whenever there’s an irregularity that calls the voter’s eligibility into question (other reasons include outdated information in the registration database or a voter being absent from the database entirely). Ballots are coded, too, to prevent voters from casting more than one ballot each.
You can vote in person 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesday. County officials are taking a number of precautions at the polls due to the pandemic, but they vary. First and foremost, voters should double-check their polling place. More than three dozen counties consolidated or moved voting locations for the June 2 primary, in part because of concerns about staffing the polls and also because some polling locations were unavailable due to coronavirus-related restrictions.
State law normally requires counties to directly notify voters of polling place changes, post the new address at the old venue, and adhere to a public vetting process that includes court approval. The temporary primary rules in effect this year don’t require any of that. Instead, counties are required to post poll addresses online and at the main elections office.
While most election directors say they mailed notices of changes to voters anyway, it doesn’t hurt to confirm on your county’s website. You’ll find drop box information there as well.
Websites and contact information for every county elections division are available in this interactive map.
How do we vote?
New voting machines should be operating in every county for the June 2 primary. The map above includes which system each county will use.
Voters in more than 50 counties will mark their ballots by hand and feed them into scanners or ballots boxes for tabulation at the main elections office after the polls close.
In most others, voters will make their selections on a touchscreen before printing ballots for scanning. A handful of jurisdictions have touchscreen machines that scan and retain the ballots without the voter touching any paper.
About a third of counties will debut new voting devices Tuesday, despite poll worker training being limited by the pandemic and social distancing. Elsewhere, voters who didn’t participate in 2019 elections will vote for the first time on the new machines.
What happens to ballots received past the election night deadline?
Pa.’s election code requires counties to keep ballots received after the deadline for two years (slightly longer than the 22-month hold federal law requires). Although they aren’t counted, officials might see potential value in preserving them to use to test audit techniques, assess voting system performance and/or ballot design, evidence in legal proceedings, and so on, according to Chris Deluzio, policy director at the University of Pittsburgh’s cybersecurity think tank PittCyber.
A few unresolved lawsuits being brought by advocacy groups and county governments seek a week-long extension to June 9 (same as the deadline for military and overseas voters).
It remains to be seen whether the courts would agree to that change so close the primary, or extend the deadline after the fact, as happened in Wisconsin.
But the general election could be a different story.
Last week, one case challenging Pa.’s ballot deadline was moved from the state Supreme Court to Commonwealth Court. In a concurring statement, Justice David Wecht wrote: “This is only the primary. Given the stakes of a quadrennial presidential election, in the event that present hardships persist as November’s general election approaches, it would be incumbent upon the courts to entertain anew any and all claims that are raised.”
We shouldn’t expect any action from the executive branch on this issue, even after the primary. Gov. Tom Wolf says he’d favor giving ballots more time to make it back to be counted, but noted that only the legislature can make that change. Pennsylvania isn’t among the handful of states with emergency election laws that specifically empower the governor or chief election official to make changes. Even in the absence of similarly clear statutes, however, some states have made temporary changes during emergencies (e.g., New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadango extended the ballot return deadline and made other procedural changes for the 2012 general election in the wake of Hurricane Sandy).
What changes are happening at the polls in response to the coronavirus?
The imperative for social distancing and hygiene drove counties to take added steps to protect voters and poll workers. Polling places are
In Delaware and many other jurisdictions where voters are filling out paper ballots by hand, officials say each voter will get a new pen to minimize risk of spreading the virus. Some — such as Dauphin — will disinfect pens after each use and are encouraging voters to bring their own.
Four counties — Luzerne, Erie, Bedford and Crawford — abandoned ballot marking devices for the primary and will instead use their Dominion Voting machines to scan hand-marked ballots. This will prevent the need for voters to use their fingers to make selections on touchscreens.
In the remaining 13 jurisdictions where touchscreens are used, approaches vary based on the jurisdiction’s preference and machine capabilities.
Philadelphia will hand out a glove to each voter to use with the county’s ExpressVote XL machines. The same model is used in Northampton County, where election director Amy Cozze says voters are encouraged to wear gloves, and in Cumberland County, where poll workers will disinfect the screens after each use. So will Columbia and Union counties, which have touchscreen machines manufactured by Unisyn and Clear Ballot, respectively.
A handful of counties — including Elk, Forest, Cameron and Washington — will give voters q-tips or another compatible stylus to use with their ExpressVote touchscreens from Election Systems & Software, in addition to instructing poll workers to clean the screens. (Note: These models are not the same as the XL mentioned above.)
Counties received some personal protective equipment, or PPE (masks, gloves, disinfecting wipes etc.) from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and DoS to use at the polls during the week or so prior to the primary.
Nearly every county had its own supplies to supplement or stand in for DoS supplies because they were concerned the materials wouldn’t arrive in time. The extra equipment also includes, in some counties, plexiglass dividers or face shields for poll workers.
DoS also gave guidance to counties on how to maintain social distancing and otherwise adjust voting, training and other protocols in response to the pandemic at the polls and elsewhere. For example, voters can expect to see traffic cones or the floor marked with tape to help them maintain social distancing. Those who need to go to the main elections office in person also might be asked to wait outside and/or use an external phone to talk to workers inside.
Can the government require voters to wear masks?
That’s been the line from state officials, anyway, though they have been unable to provide a basis for that opinion.
“The governor strongly encourages all Pennsylvanians to wear masks whenever they leave their homes, and this includes when going to the polls next Tuesday,” Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokeswoman emailed Sunday. “That said, the administration does not want to disenfranchise any eligible voter.”
We asked the ACLU of Pa. for their take, too:
“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our form of government, and public officials have a duty to protect it. They also must protect public health. If a county implements a rule on wearing masks in polling places, it must be consistent with public health guidelines,” spokesman Andy Hoover said. “And any rule must accommodate voters who are unable to wear a mask so that they are not disenfranchised.”
Bucks County’s health director issued a directive outlining precautions to take for in-person voting — including a mask requirement for voters and poll workers alike. Bucks officials, however, were unsure whether it was even enforceable, as the Courier Times reported.
In Lebanon County, several poll workers quit shortly before the primary over health concerns. They were worried that people wouldn’t wear masks after state Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) said voters didn’t have to wear masks at the polls, according to election director Michael Anderson.
Most other counties say they are encouraging voters to wear masks.
When will we have final results?
First, it will take longer than usual (particularly in close races) to finalize election results due to the “unprecedented number of mailed ballots” (see: more than 10 times the number in the 2016 primary), as DoS has been underscoring during the run up to the primary.
Pennsylvanians are accustomed to knowing election outcomes, in most cases, on election night.
That’s unlikely to happen Tuesday. Some counties (including Philadelphia, Cumberland and Westmoreland) aren’t even going to start tabulating results until the following morning.
Pennsylvania law requires counties to finish tabulation within a week of the election.
Wisconsin’s results took a full week to finalize to allow for counting tens of thousands of absentee ballots that didn’t reach voters by Election Day. It’s important to note, however, that the presidential contests were still contested at the time of Wisconsin’s April 7 primary. Voters and election officials also had much less time to adjust to the shift to more voting by mail.
What might change between now and the general election Nov. 3?
This depends, to an extent, on how it goes on Tuesday.
But we can expect debate over the mailed ballot return and processing deadlines mentioned above, in addition to further limiting in-person voting.
State Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia) attempted to extend the return deadline with an amendment to the short-term budget bill passed last week by the General Assembly. It failed, but Haywood is introducing the same changes in bill form, according to his staff.
A longer return time was floated during discussions last fall that culminated in the passage of Act 77, which included some of the voting process changes detailed above. The Senate GOP didn’t favor the longer return time, however, and it’s worth noting Republican voters are much less likely to vote by mail, as The Philadelphia Inquirer found in this recent analysis.
Already pending in the state Senate: a House-passed bill that would require DoS to pull together a data-heavy report on the primary within two months to help inform lawmakers on any changes they might make effective for the general election.
County election officials pushed earlier this spring for a more distinct, drastic shift to vote-by-mail for the primary to avoid “running two election scenarios” simultaneously as they ended up having to do.
During the debate, state officials said there wasn’t enough time to switch to strictly mail voting, even after the primary was delayed. Doing so would create confusion over how to account for mailed ballot applications already submitted, they said.
PA Post is a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization that connects Pennsylvanians with accountability and deep-dive reporting. For more stories from PA Post, visit PaPost.org.