Less than two weeks before the primary, Pennsylvania House Republicans are asking the state to reverse its approval of Allegheny County’s limited in-person voting plan, saying it will create long lines at polls and disenfranchise voters.
“We do not believe that it was necessary to reduce any number of polling places,” the letter reads. “It threatens the public health, promotes voter disenfranchisement, and will result in severe voter confusion that undermines the core of our Republic — free and fair elections.”
The letter was sent to Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathryn Boockvar, and signed by Allegheny County Republican state Representatives Mike Turzai, Jason Ortitay, Bob Brooks, Michael Puskaric, Natalie Mihalek and Lori Mizgorski.
The legislators asked that all 1,323 polling places in Allegheny County be restored ahead of the June 2 election. The current county plan will have 211 polling places in 147 different locations.
Under Act 12, which was passed in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, election departments are authorized to reduce the number of polling places by up to 60 percent. The law requires departments to ask for state approval for more drastic cuts. Allegheny County got approval from the state last week.
“[The plan] effectively disenfranchises voters who will go to their regular polling place, which will not be there, and they will simply go home frustrated,” the letter reads. “It disenfranchises voters who will see longer lines and less social distancing and will leave without voting. There was no public notice of these changes until they were announced on Friday, May 15th by a press release. This was 18 days before election day.”
The county plans to send a postcard to each registered voter about new polling place locations. And on Friday, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald refuted the Republican claims, saying the reduction of in-person voting locations was necessary to protect the health of voters and poll workers alike.
“This argument about disenfranchisement — nothing could be further from the truth,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said that before the pandemic, the county estimated a 22 percent turnout for the primary, based on past elections. The county has already received vote-by-mail applications from nearly 30 percent of registered voters. That means turnout could exceed expectations through voting by mail alone.
Fitzgerald estimates 95 percent of voters will be voting by mail, and says polling places will be “way overstaffed.”
“We’re going to have poll workers sitting around doing crossword puzzles and reading books on election day because there's not going to be a lot of voters that show up to vote,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald dismissed the Republican claims that reducing polling place locations was “unwise and unnecessary.”
Fitzgerald said he’d heard from many poll workers who wouldn’t show up on Election Day because they were worried about health risks related to the coronavirus.
“They were not going to come and show up,” he said. “Many of them are seniors, many of them are retired, and they are the most vulnerable population.”
The plan, which was announced at a public Board of Elections meeting on April 23, passed with support from Fitzgerald and the Republican Election Board member, Sam DeMarco. The primary is June 2.