County Releases Scaled-Down List of Polling Places

May 16, 2020

Allegheny County plans to conduct the June 2 primary with just one-eighth of the polling places it usually offers to voters, with just one voting center for each of the 129 municipalities other than Pittsburgh.

County officials released the list of 147 consolidated polling places late Friday. Most are housed in schools or other civic buildings. That doesn't mean every voter who shows up in person will be stuck waiting in the same line: A county statement said some sites “may include multiple polling places so that physical distancing and other mitigation measures may be followed.”

The move is an effort to protect poll workers – many of whom are elderly – and the general public from spreading the coronavirus.

County officials have promoted mail-in voting as an alternative – almost too successfully, as so many voters have requested ballots that computer systems have had a hard time keeping up with demand.

The plan is still awaiting formal approval from the state, but a county spokeswoman said there was a “verbal” assurance from officials at the Department of State that it could proceed. The county is already planning to notify voters of the polling place changes through a campaign that involves social media, postcards, and other efforts. 

That doesn’t mean the result will be popular. Local elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, took to social media to object that the consolidation went too far.

Sam DeMarco, who chairs the county’s Republican Party and one of there members of the county’s Board of Elections, said that although he voted in favor of consolidation polling places, he had hoped there would be more of them in the plan. Early on, officials said some vote-rich communities might receive more than one polling place each. The city of Pittsburgh was expected to have 9 polling places, one for each of its council districts.

“I thought 138 would be the minimum,” DeMarco told WESA earlier this week.

In the list released Friday, the city got double the number originally expected, with polls for its 32 wards spread across 18 locations. But each of the county’s other 129 municipalities received just one.

As a result tiny communities, like Haysville and the 63 voters it had registered as of last fall, receive as many polling places as Penn Hills, which is 100 times the geographical area and has roughly 500 times as many registered voters.

“There are a lot of examples like that,” said Bethany Hallam, a County Councilor and another Election Board meber. “It’s not equitable, but it was the easiest thing to figure out” given that elections are already organized along municipal lines. Anyway, given a traditional resistance to consolidating local government here, she said, “Can you imagine if they combined municipalities?”

Hallam said that she plans to press that and other issues at a Board of Elections meeting next week, but conceded there was little prospect of changing the overall plan.

“This plan has verbal approval from the state, and we’re just a couple weeks away.”