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How Did Allegheny County Prepare For A Pandemic Election? Officials Talk Strategy Ahead Of November

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
The county bought eight ballot scanners to process paper ballots ahead of the primary. Allegheny County officials say several larger counties struggled to tabulate votes in a timely manner because they had fewer machines.

Despite a pandemic, high voter turnout, and a new election law, Allegheny County finished tallying votes in the June primary before most counties in the state. Now, the people behind that process are looking at what went right -- and what needs to be changed ahead of November.

The county saw voter turnout of more than 40 percent, double what officials predicted based on the last uncontested presidential primary in 2012. Officials say it was an all-hands-on-deck situation to process the enormous influx of paper ballots.

“I mean, when you’re standing there at 2 o’clock in the morning and you’re emptying ballot boxes with the solicitor, and assistant solicitor, and county manager, there’s no egos in the room,” said Deputy County Manager Steve Pilarski. “Failure is not an option.”

The elections division had processed more than 250,000 ballots by 3 a.m. on election night, and completed the count by Wednesday afternoon.

Those efforts required more than the division’s normal staff of 40 employees. So officials pulled people to help from other departments who weren’t working due to the pandemic – like court records employees and pool lifeguards – to help remove envelopes and flatten ballots before scanning them.

“We had every volunteer we could possibly get,” Pilarski said.

Another key component was the technology they invested in: A state law passed last year requires paper ballots so that there’s a physical record of every vote cast. Ahead of the primary, the county bought new scanners to process those ballots.

“There were other, larger jurisdictions that had a hard time getting their results in" quickly, said Administrative Services Director Jerry Tyskiewicz. “They had one scanner. We had eight. We plan on having 10 before the next election. Was it luck, providence, or planning? Maybe a little bit of all the above, but we felt we were well positioned in advance of election day.”

The team did run-throughs with the new equipment to estimate the time counting ballots would require.

“We knew exactly how long it would take to open the quantity of ballots we were getting back,” said Elections Division Deputy Manager Chet Hartut.

“[We] ran into a few snafus here and there, people got tired, it was hot, but we pulled it off,” he said. “And we predicted we were going to do that.”

But all this was expensive. In addition to printing paper ballots, the county sent out vote-by-mail applications to every registered Democrat and Republican, roughly 750,000 voters. Those efforts did not get much help from the federal government.

“I can say with certainty they did not give us enough money,” said County Budget Manager Adam Lentz. “Just between printing mailing and envelopes it was like a million bucks.”

That doesn’t include other expenses, like personal protective equipment for poll workers.

Looking ahead

Even though the primary went relatively smoothly, there are still big concerns for November. The county heard from poll workers who said cramped facilities at consolidated polling places made it hard to physically distance at the polls. The county is already thinking about how to staff the 1,323 polling places it hopes to use this fall.

Another challenge: The county doesn’t know how many people had to vote in person because they never got the mail-in ballot they requested.

Officials believe one solution is changing the deadline for making that request. Right now, voters can request a ballot up until a week before the election. The county wants to move the deadline to two weeks before election day – the same day as voter registration applications must be filed. That way, workers have more time to process requests, and voters have more time to send their ballots in

Moving that deadline would require amending state law, and so would another change the county would like: allowing officials to start counting ballots the weekend before the election.

Tyskiewicz, the administrative services chief, worries about what will happen if workers don't get that extra time. Based on the 2016 presidential election, turnout in November could be easily twice as high as it was in June.

“I think if we get twice as many ballots, it wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be very difficult to get through that process,” he said.

And as President Trump and others are already stoking fears of voting fraud – especially about mail-in ballots –  it will be imperative for counties to release results as soon as they can.