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Lawmaker wants expanded vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania to protect primary voters from coronavirus

Gov. Tom Wolf says he hopes people vote by mail.

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
A voter receives his I-Voted sticker, at an early voting polling station at the Ranchito Avenue Elementary School in the Panorama City section of Los Angeles on Monday, March 2.

 Richard Vogel/AP Photo

A voter receives his I-Voted sticker, at an early voting polling station at the Ranchito Avenue Elementary School in the Panorama City section of Los Angeles on Monday, March 2.

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A Pennsylvania legislator wants to expand mail-in balloting in the state as a way to protect vulnerable populations from the spread of coronavirus.

State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) introduced a bill to require counties and the Department of State to send ballots with prepaid return postage to every single voter in the commonwealth 

“Our election workers are disproportionately seniors, if not majority seniors,” Boyle said, noting older adults are most vulnerable to COVID-19

“So, we need to take precautions. And I think we need to set the scene legislatively when we get back next week to prepare for a mail-in primary, either at the end of April or … delay(ed) a few weeks,” he said.

The proposed legislation would maintain in-person voting as an option, and would provide $40 million for printing and postage costs for both the primary and general election.

Poll worker absences were a problem in some states that have already held presidential primaries, and some county election directors say it could be a problem in Pennsylvania. Local officials report that some workers are already expressing concerns about working the polls for the state’s April 28 primary. 

But some county election directors say Boyle’s HB 2367, if enacted, would complicate matters and wouldn’t achieve the’ stated goal of mitigating health risks. A mail-only primary is a better option – but would present major issues, at least for some counties, says Mercer County Election Director Jeff Greenburg.

“You’re literally asking a county to become a mini postal service in weeks,” Greenburg said Friday. “There are some places that might be able to handle it. But for many counties, especially smaller counties, I think it would be extremely problematic.”

Vendor capacity is one question to consider, he said, and the resources required would not be limited to postage.

“You’re talking about a completely different process with significant amounts of equipment. Expensive equipment, such as mail sorters, maybe signature verifiers, letter openers, paper joggers,” Greenburg said. “There are so many different things.”

Boyle acknowledged such concerns are valid, but said the prospect of running the primary April 28 as usual “is highly problematic.”

“If you look at the growth of this virus and other countries, like Italy, like China, like South Korea, this is only the beginning,” he said. “In all likelihood, it’s only going to get worse.”

But the bill as written would create a nightmare for counties, said Lycoming County Election Director Forrest Lehman. 

“Given the premise of the bill is to address a public health issue, then it doesn’t make sense that it would permit voters and election workers to gather together in a polling place,” Lehman said. “It’s the worst of all worlds for counties. You have to mail ballots and stuff envelopes. You also have to run your complete precinct-based election. … It’s horrifying to even contemplate.”

Boyle says the legislature cannot shut down in-person voting without amending the state constitution, a process that would take until at least 2021 (provided lawmakers pass identical bills in two consecutive sessions and voters approve it in a referendum.

A faster approach would have to come from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, he said.

And if voting by mail is mandated for the April 28 primary, Boyle said his bill would get money into the pipeline to help cover associated costs.

Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters Friday his administration hasn’t ruled out postponing a special election in Bucks County or the presidential primary (as Louisiana has). He also said he hopes people vote by mail. 

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren confirmed an all-mail primary wasn’t being considered.

Murren declined Friday to comment on Boyle’s bill or mechanisms for changing specific election procedures. She wrote in an email:

The Department of State is having comprehensive discussions about a range of potential options for the April primary election … in consultation with the Department of Health, the governor’s office, the legislature and the counties. Our focus is on best ways to protect the integrity of the election while safeguarding public health. We will immediately notify the public if there are to be any changes in primary or special-election voting. In the meantime, we remind Pennsylvania voters that the new mail-in ballot option provides a valuable alternative and can be used for any reason or no reason at all.


Editor’s note: this post was updated to correct Gov. Wolf’s statement on the possibility of delaying the primary.

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