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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County Democrats hope to pick up pace on mail-in ballot applications

Mail-in ballots are seen at a Pennsylvania elections office.
Matt Rourke
Mail-in ballots are seen at a Pennsylvania elections office.

With a month-and-a-half to go before the Nov. 8 midterm election, the number of mail-in ballot applications in Allegheny County is only slightly higher than it was at this point in 2021.

County Elections Director Dave Voye told the county's three-member Board of Elections on Tuesday that election workers had received roughly 136,700 mail-in ballots so far. That's an improvement over the 2021 tally of slightly more than 123,000 ballots by the same stage of the election cycle, but well behind the 313,000 applications the county received at a similar point in 2020.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by a two-to-one margin in the county, and mail-in voting is especially popular among Democrats. But local leaders of both parties were cautious about reading too much into the fact that applications so far were only about 10% ahead of the pace in 2021, an off-year election in which many races were effectively decided in the Democratic primary.

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"I'm not disappointed to see those numbers not change much over 2021, but I don't know if it's indicative of what we're going to see November 8th," said Sam DeMarco, who chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. "Obviously it's to be expected that turnout is nowhere near what it is in a presidential election"— especially one in which the still-novel coronavirus shut down many polling places.

"I think it's a pretty good number at this point in time," said Sam Hens-Greco, head of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. "They are higher than last year, and if you look at when applications come in, you see an increase in September going into the first week of October especially."

Both party leaders said they saw mail-in ballots as a way to encourage participation from voters who often don't bother to turn out. Hens-Greco said his party had already reached out to more than 20,000 "low-propensity voters" who showed up at the polls intermittently, "and about 15 percent of those folks have already returned applications," he said.

"We're optimistic, and we're going to keep chasing those voters," he said. Still, he said, "I think we're still in the infancy of mail-in voting, and we don't have a full understanding of why people use it or don't."

Applications for mail-in ballots can be received as late as Nov. 1, but election officials urge voters not to wait that long. During the Board of Elections meeting, Voye said he didn't have a precise date for when ballots would start to go out. One challenge is a Pittsburgh City Council special election in which challenges may still be filed as late as Sept. 22 to some of the four candidates currently in the running.

In the meantime, county Administrative Services Director Jessica Garofolo said efforts were still underway to recruit poll workers for the county's 1,300 polling locations. The county still has 4,300 poll workers lined up but needs roughly 2,200 more for Election Day.

"This is about where we are every year," Garofolo said. "We make up the numbers as we get closer to the election."

The county has taken a "boots-on-the-ground approach" to recruitment, she said, following up on plans to recruit students from college campuses and even attending tailgating events at Pittsburgh Steelers games.

"We actually had staff in the parking lots trying to recruit people," she said. "We're taking more of a grassroots approach and actually speaking to people face-to-face."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.