Allegheny County Election Officials Outline Plans Ahead Of May Primary
It’s probably safe to say that this year's primary election will be much calmer for Allegheny County elections officials than last year’s. All the county's 1,323 polling places will be open, nearly 60 percent of poll workers have been confirmed to oversee voting on election day, and county officials have received just one-third the number of requests for mail-in ballots that were sent in by this time last year.
But while everyone at Tuesday’s Board of Elections meeting appeared to be grateful to have 2020 behind them, County Councilor and election board member Bethany Hallam expressed concern about the elections to come. She criticized the division’s decision not to continue all the expanded voting services it provided in last year's presidential election.
“I think Allegheny County got a lot of bonus points for the way we did satellite voting locations for the 2020 elections,” said Hallam, a Democrat.
Following worries last summer that the U.S. Postal Service would struggle to deliver hundreds of thousands of ballots in time to be counted, Allegheny County opened satellite voting centers on the weekends. Voters could use the sites to return completed mail ballots, or to request a mail ballot, vote, and return their ballot all in one trip.
“I myself, and most of the people on this call, went to those satellite locations and were able to see how successful they were and how many voters in Allegheny County took advantage of them,” Hallam said.
But Allegheny County Executive and Elections Board Chair Rich Fitzgerald said the cost of staffing those extra facilities was high. And he said the Post Office would be under less stress this year, due to the much smaller volume of mail ballots to process in an off-year election.
The data supports that position. Only about 6 percent of the 726,720 ballots cast in the 2020 general election were returned to a satellite voting location. And as of Tuesday, the county had received about 90,000 mail ballot requests, compared with the 300,000 it received by this point last year.
“We can’t be all things to all people when it comes to cost,” Fitzgerald said. “This legislature has given counties in Pennsylvania a large, unfunded mandate. We not only have to keep the 1,323 polling places open …. then added to it with the mail, and then added to it with the drop boxes, it all falls on the county taxpayer to pay for all this. So I think when the state wants to mandate something for counties to do, they ought to come up with the money to fund it, which they have not done.”
Hallam said she thought it was more important for people to have the ability to vote in local elections than in a presidential election. “If money is going to be a barrier, then the elections division should be asking for more money,” she said.
Hallam was also frustrated that the county will not automatically send mail ballot applications to every registered voter, as it did last year.
At the time, voting-rights groups applauded the move as an effort to encourage voting while also stemming the spread of the coronavirus. But on Tuesday, Allegheny County Administrative Services Director Jerry Tyskiewicz noted that only about 6 percent of the ballot applications mailed by the county were returned, since many other third-party groups also sent mail ballot applications.
The primary is May 18. Pennsylvanians can register to vote or request a mail ballot at votespa.com.