The Allegheny County Elections Division is starting to look at how to improve its procedures ahead of the November election, but some voting rights activists say decisions need to be made as soon as possible.
“Whatever the plan is, they need to come up with it by the beginning of July and then spend those months doing consistent marketing,” said Maryn Formley, who started the Voter Empowerment, Education, and Enrichment Movement, or VEEEM.
Formley started the group with the goal of getting voter turnout in and around Homewood up to 50 percent in every election. In 2017, a municipal election year, turnout in Homewood was lower than 10 percent in some wards.
“The apathy I saw at the polls, the miseducation ... I was disheartened about it,” Formley said. “The challenge in the past has been in the underserved communities, specifically with Black and brown people. We’ve gone to predominantly African-American communities all over to spread that message: Your vote matters.”
The group registers voters, answers questions ahead of elections, and helps drive people to the polls in predominantly Black communities.
But this year was different. The coronavirus closed most polling places and prevented activists from giving rides to the ones that were still open.
Formley recognizes that the pandemic forced officials to improvise. The county sent out vote-by-mail applications and postcards about new poll locations, but she said it wasn’t enough.
“So the VEEEM line was popping all day with people who either didn't know that their polling location had changed or requested a mail-in ballot and never received it and didn't know what to do,” she said.
Deidre Lesesne saw some of that chaos at her polling place in Penn Hills, which was the only location where the polls stayed open past the 8 p.m. deadline due to long lines.
“It was not well organized and thought through,” she said. “I just kind of felt like this is crazy. It could have easily been attached to some voter suppression.”
Formley and Lesesne worry that any confusion in November will suppress the Black vote in particular.
“Even supervoters – which there are a lot of in the Black community – were turned off,” Lesesne said.
Election officials say they will have a plan in case the pandemic forces the county to make changes again in November. Still, no one knows exactly what we’ll be up against in the fall.