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County Election Officials Assess Primary, And Propose Changes Ahead Of November

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
A ballot scanner at the Allegheny County election warehouse.

The Allegheny County Board of Elections met Monday morning to review how the county handled the June primary -- an election that took place amid the unprecedented circumstances of a pandemic, a new mail-in voting law and voter turnout that was twice as high as expected. But while Democrats and Republican board members said the overall process was smooth, both sides saw areas for significant improvement.
“We heard from folks at the state and around the country that whatever Allegheny did was much better than what other people did,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “But having said that, I know we can anticipate in the fall that we will probably have at least double the amount of people who will [vote] both in mail-in and in person, and we have to be prepared for that and make any corrections.”

Election officials had anticipated 22 percent voter turnout in June, thinking voter participation would be similar to 2012, the last uncontested presidential primary election. But turnout roughly doubled to more than 40 percent -- a leap attributed in large part to a new state law that allows anyone to vote by mail, as well as the county’s decision to mail every registered Democrat and Republican a vote-by-mail application ahead of the primary.

“This was an all-hands-on-deck type of operation,” said Republican county councilor Sam DeMarco. “I witnessed county manager [William] McKain, [Department of Elections solicitor Allan] Opsitnick, [Department of Elections] director Dave Voye – their sleeves were rolled up. [The county] recognized the challenge it was going to present, and we prepared from a logistical perspective.”

Still, DeMarco, Fitzgerald and the third board member, Democratic county councilor Bethany Hallam, all said changes need to be made ahead of November at both the county and state level.

For the primary, the county drastically cut the number of in-person voting locations to roughly one per municipality and just a handful in Pittsburgh to reduce the number of places the coronavirus could spread, and to offset a dearth of available poll workers to run the polls. Fitzgerald said both state law and expected turnout won’t allow for such drastic cuts in the fall, but that he expects some polling locations to change. The elections department will reach out to host locations and start recruiting poll workers next month.

Election officials also expect in-person voting results to be available earlier on Election Night in November. For the primary, in-person voters dropped their ballots into a secure ballot box. After polls closed, those boxes were driven to the central warehouse where they were scanned and uploaded. In the fall, there will be at least one scanner at every polling place. After completing their paper ballot, the voter will feed it through a scanner, which will count their vote. Scanning at polling places didn’t happen in June because the county wasn’t able to train poll workers to use the new scanners ahead of the election, due to the pandemic and social-distancing guidelines.

“That should speed up Election Night,” said the county's elections division director, Dave Voye. “[Poll workers] will pull a memory stick from the scanner” and scanners at the warehouse can focus on processing mail-in ballots.

The board also outlined a series of requests to the state that would likely require legislative action: allowing counties to begin scanning ballots earlier than 7 a.m. on Election Day, changing the deadline for when voters can request mail ballots, and requiring counties to report vote totals by a specific deadline.

“I’ve heard from other county commissioners and other election officials that they’re going to be requesting that the state allow them to start counting mail-in ballots earlier,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe a week earlier, or at least three or four days earlier, so that we’re not waiting for results like some counties did – seven, ten days after Election Day.”

Officials said they’d like to be able to start processing ballots at 5:01 p.m. on the Friday before the election, because the deadline to file an objection or challenge to a mail-in ballot is 5 p.m. that Friday.

“We would open and scan the results and not obviously post any type of results,” said Jerry Tyskiewicz, director of the department of administrative services. “It puts us in a much better position to accommodate a 75- or 80-percent turnout election.”

Fitzgerald also suggested changing the deadline to request a mail-in ballot. Currently, voters can request the ballot as late as one week prior to the election, but Fitzgerald said making the date earlier in the cycle could ease the burden of processing mail-in ballots on Election Day.

“That turnaround seems awfully difficult to achieve,” he said. “By the time the election department receives the application, sends it to the voter – two to three days in the mail, at best – and then have it returned by Election Day. If you’re going to vote, why wait one week before Election Day? The voter has to take a little bit of responsibility here and do it earlier.”

Voye suggested that the deadline to request a ballot should be the same as the deadline to register to vote: 15 days prior to the election.

The final request to the state was proposed by DeMarco, who wants the state to set a deadline for when every county must complete tallying results by.

“In Allegheny County, we did a phenomenal job: 18 hours from the time the polls closed we had the results from the in-person and the mail-ins,” DeMarco said, but noted other counties like Philadelphia took much longer. “I think folks are concerned that we put all our results up and then they’ll put theirs up whenever ... it’s a little shaky here.”

Without a deadline, he said, candidates in races that span more than one county could wait days for an outcome.

The board will discuss these changes further in the days ahead. But as Democrat Bethany Hallam noted, a second wave of coronavirus cases could shift any plans officials have now.

“What if the spike in coronavirus happens two weeks or even a week prior to our election?” Hallam asked. “How will we handle that? Do we have a plan in place?”

“We do not,” Voye said. But he assured Hallam it was something they could discuss.