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Amid Worries About Slow Mail Delivery, PA Officials Push To Extend Deadlines, Use of Drop Boxes

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA

Recent revelations that the U.S. Postal Service will likely struggle to deliver mail-in ballots in time for Election Day has worried voters, campaigns and election officials across the U.S. But the stakes feel particularly high in battleground states like Pennsylvania -- and with less than three months until November, election officials are trying to address mail delivery problems and voter fears.

What happened to voter Patricia DeMarco is what everyone is trying to avoid in November.

DeMarco, 74, lives in Forest Hills. She’s mostly retired, and serves on the Forest Hills Borough Council in addition to teaching a course at Chatham University. She’s particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, so she decided to vote by mail in the June primary. She got her ballot, filled it out, and sent it back. But when she went online to check if it was received, nothing came up.

“I was horrified, I was really horrified,” said DeMarco. “I was like: There's no way I'm not going to vote.”

She’d never missed an election before and had no intention of starting in 2020.

“People take voting seriously in this town, and I don't like to see impediments cast against people who are trying to vote and exercise their civic responsibility,” she said.

So on Election Day, she went to her polling place.

“I wore a surgical type of mask and then I had a scarf over my face as well,” she recalled.

Poll workers had her fill out a provisional ballot, in case her other one got lost. There are bar codes on ballots to ensure that you can’t vote twice. 

It’s still unclear what happened to DeMarco’s original ballot. But there are increasing signs that the state’s vote-by-mail deadlines may not work this fall, when voter turnout is expected to be high.

Currently, voters can request a ballot up until seven days before the election. But the U.S. Postal Service told the Pennsylvania Department of State that it will need a week to deliver that ballot to voters, and another week to return it to the election office. Officials are now scrambling to do two things at once – change the deadlines and calm people’s fears.

“The Department and county election offices are working day and night to make sure that every eligible Pennsylvanian’s vote is counted in November, no matter whether they vote by mail or in person,” said Kathy Boockvar, who serves as Secretary of the Commonwealth, earlier this month. 

Boockvar has asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to extend by three days the deadline for mail-in ballots to be counted – until the Friday after the election. The state will also cover postage and is working with counties to start mailing out ballots earlier in September.

Another solution being discussed: drop boxes in which ballots can be deposited without having to rely on the mail. In Pennsylvania, 18 counties across the state used a total of 48 drop boxes (plus one mobile unit in Philadelphia) in the June primary, according to data provided by the Department of State. While rules for drop boxes can vary from state to state – and sometimes county by county – about 36 states use them right now.

“People can drop off their ballots, they can be picked up and taken by the department of elections and counted,” said Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak, who represents voting-rights groups. “You don't have to worry about whether your ballot is going to be delivered in time by the US Postal Service.”

But the Trump campaign is suing every elections department in the state over the practice, alleging that the drop boxes "have increased the potential for ballot fraud of tampering." The campaign aruged in a federal lawsuit that there should be statewide standards for placing and monitoring drop boxes, which it said were "unmonitored and/or unsecured."

The campaign didn’t make anyone available for an interview with WESA. But a senior campaign official said that “President Trump will continue fighting for a free, fair, transparent election so that every valid ballot counts – and counts once.”

Act 77, the state law passed last year that expanded voting rights and allows any registered voter to vote by mail, does not address the use of drop boxes. But the Department of State argues language in Pennsylvania’s Election Code does not prohibit them, noting in court filings that the law allows a county election board to operate in multiple locations. The department also stated that ballot boxes can be placed at locations (designated by the board) other than the county board of election office.

“While the Trump campaign raises the specter of fraud, they have not pointed to a single instance of that kind of fraud happening,” Walczak said. “On the other hand, you have people who are being legitimately disenfranchised because the mail-in balloting system doesn't work well enough.”

On Sunday, the federal judge overseeing the drop-box case put the lawsuit on hold, saying state courts need to address questions about mail-in ballots first.

Given that it’s already August, experts say drop boxes are the state's best bet to alleviate fears.

“Of the things you do to make vote-by-mail work, they are one of the best options left,” said Matt Weil, Director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The other [options] that people are talking about include buying huge sorters for [mail ballots], or funding the post office to make sure they stay open. These are just huge, expensive things. Whereas drop boxes tend to not be very expensive and can be rolled out on a pretty quick timeline.”

With ballots getting mailed out next month, the Pennsylvania Attorney General wants the state Supreme Court to take up these issues as soon as possible.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.