Thanks to the coronavirus, voting in Allegheny County will look very different this June. The Board of Elections voted Thursday to reduce the number of polling places from more than 1,300 to less than 200, to try and limit the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging residents to vote by mail, rather than in person.
“Obviously we’re in very difficult times right now,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at an afternoon meeting of the three-person board. “So the intent is to try to limit the amount of folks who have to show up on election day and vote in person and are able to vote by mail.”
The county's election department began sending pre-stamped mail-in ballot applications out to registered voters in the county on Monday, an effort to encourage residents to vote by mail. Nearly 90,000 people in Allegheny County have already applied for a mail-in ballot. Officials said that's about half of the number of voters who typically turnout in presidential election year with a noncompetitive primary. Officials hope those numbers will signify very low walk-up turnout at polling places.
The elections department has processed approximately 30,000 applications and mailed between 17,000 and 20,000 ballots to voters this week.
“We’re all hands on deck over here to process them,” said Dave Voye, manager of elections for Allegheny County. Voye said his office is adding shifts to process the high volume of applications, and employees will be working in staggered shifts from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The division has been processing around 5,000 applications a day, and Voye said he’s bringing in more employees from other departments in order to double the output of ballots starting on Monday.
The board’s plan is to limit polling places to one location per municipality and one in each of Pittsburgh's nine City Council districts. Municipal polling places will likely be at local government offices, though the plan provides for the option of adding polling places in some areas if there are enough poll workers. Board members said larger municipalities -- like Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon and McCandless -- would likely require additional locations.
The plan passed 2-1 with Fitzgerald and County Councilor Sam DeMarco, a Republican, voting for it. Democratic County Councilor Bethany Hallam voted no, after expressing misgivings about putting a single polling place in municipalites of different sizes.
Fitzgerald said there was an urgent need to act.
“We saw what happened in [the Wisconsin primary] where many people already have come down with the coronavirus, both poll workers and voters,” Fitzgerald said. “So we certainly want to limit that. We also know that the demographic of our poll workers tend to be seniors who are retired who are obviously much more vulnerable to this disease.”
There are usually about 6,500 poll workers at precincts on election day, and officials are unsure what the work force will look like during the pandemic.
“If we try to have more polling places and we don't have enough workers, then we will have long lines,” Fitzgerald said.
At polling places, workers will have masks, gloves, sanitizer and other equipment. The county has already placed orders for personal protective equipment, and the state has promised additional supplies.
Fitzgerald said officials may have to staff polling places with county employees from other departments if there aren't enough poll workers. As an alternative, he suggested the county could reach out to young people, who typically have less to fear from the virus.
“One of the things we might want to do is reach out to maybe our colleges and universities,” he said. “It's a good way for young people to get involved and may feel a little more secure about being willing to do something like that.”
The proposal must be submitted to state officials, but the board members said the state has been receptive.