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Polling Places Draw Long Lines, Report Few Problems, Amid Pandemic And Unrest

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Political signs line the sidewalk outside of the polling place at Rodef Shalom Synagogue in Shadyside.

Given that Pennsylvania’s 2020 primary is taking place amid a global pandemic and nationwide unrest over policing, voting has preceded quietly in Allegheny County since the polls opened at 7 a.m. With two hours left to go before polls closed at 8 p.m., there were few problems to report -- although lines at some polling places were getting longer as the workday ended. An Allegheny County Judge, in fact, agreed to keep the polls open at the Penn Hills Libary on Stotler Road until 9 p.m., owing to concerns about access to the site. 


Traffic jams around the site were a problem throughout much of the day, and shortly before the polls closed, ACLU of PA legal director Vic Walczak filed a motion to keep the site open. As a matter of law, any voter in line when the polls close is eligible to vote, but Walczak said the challenge for voters in Penn Hills was getting into line to begin with. 


"You couldn't get into the parking lot," he said. The nearest parking was a down a hill with no sidewalk, "and the issue was that people either couldn't get into the lot, and either couldn't or didn't want to walk a quarter mile." 


The move was not expected to delay reporting of results from elsewhere in the county. 


Voters at a Highland Park polling place, meanwhile, reported waits of up to an hour.

"I would  rather do the risk and vote rather than sit around and say ‘woulda shoulda coulda,’” said Highland Park resident Vickie Davis, about why she was willing to wait. She said she requested a vote-by-mail ballot but didn't receive one in time. 


Waits elsewhere were not as long, though there were complications. Lines at Wilkinsburg's municipal building wrapped around the block but the line moved briskly once officials opened another room to voters. Some activists expressed concern that the mostly-black borough's municipal building also housed its police department -- a potentially unwelcome backdrop amid nationwide protests of police misconduct. But Wilkinsburg voter Idris Carlow said the protests, and Donald Trump's militaristic response to them, underscored the importance of voting. 


"We’ve got a president in there right now who, instead of trying to work with everybody…he’s trying to bring the National Guard in, he’s trying to push for a more violent ssituation," he said. "It’s already violent enough."


As of 5:40 p.m., the county had scanned over 107,500 mail-in ballots, out of the more than 185,000 it received prior to Election Day, at the North Side warehouse that is the center of ballot-counting operations.

The actual scanning of ballots is a rapid-fire process: The county has eight optical scanners capable of processing 300 ballots per minute. The most labor-intensive part of the process is removing ballots from their envelopes and smoothing them so they don't jam the scanners. A county spokeswoman said she expected the pace of scanning to increase as the day wore on: It took the county from 7 a.m. until lunchtime to count its first 24,000 ballots -- by dinnertime workers had processed roughly  37,000 ballots in the previous hour-and-a-half. 

County officials say there have been a handful of issues reported from various polling sites. Election workers in Elizabeth Township initially couldn’t find any ballots for Republican voters this morning, but discovered they had merely been misplaced. Similar lapses were reported elsewhere by afternoon, when the county said that "in each case, ballots were found at those locations. The division also sent additional ballots to each of these polling places."

Some voters in other polling locations, in particular Brashear High School used by voters in Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhoods, complained that they had been assigned ballots for the wrong party’s primary. A county spokesperson said problems there were “minimal” and were addressed before lunchtime.

There were also scattered reports, in Brentwood and elsewhere, of voters being turned away without masks: While county officials have urged everyone to wear a mask at the polls -- and while poll workers have a supply of spare masks to hand out -- it is not a requirement to vote. "We contacted each polling place again to reiterate that voters can vote even if they do not wear a mask," the county said in a late-afternoon statement.

Poll workers tremselves are required to wear masks or face shields, the county added. 

At least one altercation took place between a voter and a constable after the voter began denouncing socialism outside a polling place at Taylor Allderdice High School in the East End. According to video viewed by WESA, the constable was called out to deal with the voter, who pushed the constable back into a nearby dumpster. The men wrestled on the ground before the fight was broken up.

County officials said the man was allowed to vote and was told no charges would be filed.

It is difficult to compare turnout to previous elections. In an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the county shrunk its 1,300 polling places down to fewer than 200. And much of the voting has already taken place, thanks to a dramatic expansion of mail-in balloting.

While tens of thousands of mail-in votes have already been counted, county officials cannot release any of those totals until polls close at 8 p.m. There will likely be a sizable number of votes reported shortly afterwards. That will mark a shift from prior years, in which counting began only after polls closed and initial results often weren't available for an hour or longer.

Still, it is not clear when winners in many of these races will be called. Late Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that in Allegheny and five other counties, election officials should count mailed-in ballots that arrive at the elections office as late as next Tuesday, provided they are postmarked today.  

Lucy Perkins contributed to this story. 

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.