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Election Officials Approve Early Voting Locations, Streamline Ballot Counting Ahead Of November

Carrie Antlfinger

To accommodate an enormous influx of mail ballots in a highly contested presidential election year, the Allegheny County Board of Elections voted unanimously Thursday to expand voting options, and officials updated the public on other plans to expand the county's ability to count ballots in November.
Most notably, the board approved a plan to open nine satellite election offices around the county, so voters who received their mail ballot, but are nervous about the U.S. Postal Service returning their ballots in time to be counted, can drop off their completed ballots.

“You can take [your ballot] to one of these locations and drop it off,” said Elections Division Manager Dave Voye. Voye emphasized that voters can only return their own ballot. “The workers at these locations will ask you if you signed your ballot and make sure it’s your ballot.”

Voters can also do early, in-person voting at these locations. The voter will be required to fill out an application to vote, and an official will check to make sure that they haven’t voted yet. Then, the application will be processed and the voter will be given a ballot. The voter will place their completed ballot in a locked drop box.

“This process could still take 10-15 minutes without a line,” Voye warned.

But while the expansion of early voting locations was approved unanimously, the process was still met with questions from county councilors Sam DeMarco and Bethany Hallam.

“How do we ensure that someone who votes at a satellite location doesn’t vote in person on election day too?" DeMarco asked.

Voye said that poll workers will have supplemental poll books that lists everyone who has applied for and returned mail ballots.

“What prevents me from showing at one [satellite] location and then going to a different location?” Hallam asked.

Voye said that the satellite locations will be connected to the county system and records will be updated immediately after someone votes.

The county has processed 271,680 mail ballot applications as of 12 p.m. on Thursday, and officials are confident it will get through the remaining backlog quickly.

Ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day. They may still be counted even if they are delivered as late as November 6, following a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling Thursday.

More equipment, more capacity

Allegheny County was lauded for its efficient reporting of results after the June primary, but it has  further enhanced other aspects of the vote-counting proces in time for November.

“The primary went very smooth,” said Deputy Elections Manager Chet Harhut. “We got some compliments on our timeliness. I think our timeliness may even be better as we ramp up our operation.”

All mail ballots will now be sent directly to the elections warehouse, where they will be tabulated. The county has a 30-camera security system that will run 24/7. The stored ballots will be in security cages. There will also be in-person security at the warehouse 24 hours a day once ballots are returned.

“The beauty of it is, it’s across the street from the postal hub,” Harhut said of the North Side facility. “So we’re going to take them straight from the post office hub over to the warehouse.”

The county bought a sorting machine that will timestamp envelopes as they’re processed and sort them quickly. The county also added more machines to scan the ballot envelopes and mark them as being received.

“We’re shooting for same-day processing of that mail coming in with a robust staff,” Harhut said.

Harhut said the county now has the capacity to open roughly 100,000 ballots an hour, which is almost double the county’s capacity during the June primary.

The board also confirmed that the county has begun training poll workers, and voted to pay them an increased stipend of $200 per person because they will be working during the pandemic. The county is using money from the federal CARES Act to pay more than 6,500 poll workers for their work.

And unlike in June, polling places will not be consolidated in the general election. The elections division is still working to confirm about 30 polling place locations, and will send postcards to all registered voters about where they will be voting on November 3.