Ahead Of Pandemic Primary, Nearly 30 Percent Of Allegheny County Voters Apply To Vote By Mail

May 19, 2020

In its last public meeting before the June 2 primary, the Allegheny County Board of Elections met Tuesday to run through final details and plans for the upcoming election, which could lead to higher-than-normal turnout despite the threat of a global pandemic.

The board heard that the county's elections office has received 225,000 applications to vote by mail and processed 189,000 applications so far. It's received 42,000 completed ballots back from voters.

“I’d like to thank all the hard-working employees at the department of election who have been working tirelessly seven days a week for the last six weeks,” said Jerry Tyskiewicz, who heads the department of administrative services.

Election workers are running in three shifts, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to process applications, fold and mail ballots, with assistance from employees from the court records department and seasonal park staff. 

 "We are processing applications day and night," said elections manager Dave Voye. "We're processing them as fast as we can." 

There are nearly 800,000 registered Democrats and Republicans in Allegheny County, according to the Department of State. If every person who requested a mail-in ballot votes, that will lead to a 28 percent turnout through mail-in voting, not including anyone who votes in-person on Election Day. That turnout rate would surpass the last uncontested presidential primary in 2012, in which turnout was 22 percent, according to election officials.

For those who do vote in-person, the election division asked that voters practice social distancing and wear a mask. County employees will be outside every polling place to remind voters of the new safety procedures. Inside the polling places, poll workers will use blue tape to demarcate where voters can stand.

To protect election staff, each poll worker will receive a personal kit that includes hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and wipes to clean high touch areas. The board also voted unanimously to boost pay for poll workers to $200. Poll workers usually make between $115 and $140. The hazard pay increase will be a one-time change.

“We’re doing everything we can to protect the safety and health of everybody," said county executive Rich Fitzgerald, "but it’s still a process where they have to come and spend at least 13 hours and it’s more than that when you get there early and stay beyond the 8 o’clock hour.”

But while the measure was approved unanimously, there were questions from board members about how poll workers were being selected to work the primary.

"A lot of poll workers have been reaching out to me saying that they contacted the county, they're used to working Election Day at the polls and they're being told they were not needed," said Democratic County Councilor Bethany Hallam, a member of the Election Board. "Why is that happening?"

Voye said that because there are fewer polling places open, they may not be needed in their home municipality, but that if poll workers are willing to go elsewhere they can call. He also confirmed that the county is following up with elected poll workers who have expressed interest in working.

Republican County Councilor Sam DeMarco said he's also heard concerns from across the county over how poll workers were being assigned.

"I'll use Bradford Woods for example, where I was told there would be two county employees and a Democratic committeewoman, and I was hearing from the minority party that was saying that they weren't being represented," DeMarco said. "What are we doing to ensure that we are providing that minority representation?"

Voye said that the department strictly went by the list of people who normally work.

"To use Bradford Woods as your example, we have a list of five or six poll workers that have been working there probably for the last 10 or 15 years. Those are the poll workers we call: We didn't associate party with it. And I can also tell you we didn't staff any county employees to work inside."

Following Tuesday's meeting, Allegheny County Republican House members slammed Allegheny County's primary plan, which proposes reducing polling places from 1,323 to less than 300. In a statement, the representatives said the plan violates Act 12, the law that allows counties to consolidate as much as 60 percent polling places during the pandemic. Larger consolidation requires approval from the Department of State.

"Interestingly, the Pennsylvania Department of State sent a letter to Allegheny County approving the consolidation on Sunday; however, the county released the consolidation plan to the public on Friday, sans state approval," the statement said. (County officials told WESA last week that the state had given the plan informal approval before they released it to the public.) 

The primary is June 2. The last day to apply to vote by mail is May 26 at 5 p.m. The department of elections must receive ballots by 8 p.m. on election night in order to count them.