Counties want a decision on delaying Pa.’s April 28 primary

6 counties want presidential primary moved to June 23

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
Now is a good time to apply for a mail-in ballot. The presidential primary will be the first where Pa. voters can submit theirs through the mail without an excuse (which, until now, was required to vote absentee). The Department of State’s portal guides voters on which one’s best for them. —Emily Previti, staff writer
Poll worker Dina Sebold waits for voters at Cecelia Snyder Middle School in Bensalem during a special election for a vacant seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Hand sanitizer and wipes were made available to voters, many of whom brought their own pens.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Poll worker Dina Sebold waits for voters at Cecelia Snyder Middle School in Bensalem during a special election for a vacant seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Hand sanitizer and wipes were made available to voters, many of whom brought their own pens. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

Berks County commissioners passed a resolution Wednesday urging Gov. Tom Wolf to move the presidential primary to June 23.

The day before, officials from Philadelphia and its four collar counties sent a letter to Wolf to that effect.

The moves come as election officials are becoming increasingly anxious, and poll workers preemptively call out weeks ahead of the April 28 primary.

“I wouldn’t have said this even a couple days ago, but … I’ve gotten to the point where, to me, Governor Wolf is failing counties and their voters every day that he permits this cloud of uncertainty to keep hanging over our primary,” said Lycoming County Elections Director Forrest Lehman.

“I’ve never seen a primary in greater peril than this one,” Lehman said. “And it’s just due to the silence, the indecision, the lack of guidance on what counties are supposed to be doing. He has to make a decision as soon as possible or this is entirely his fault if this primary ends up at the bottom of the ocean.”

Lehman said organizations that host polling places haven’t pulled out of participating in the primary as of Thursday, nor has he received any notice from poll workers that they aren’t willing to work.

But in some counties, it’s happening to a dramatic degree: Berks County has already lost at least 25 percent of its poll workers and nearly 20 locations, according to Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt.

If Wolf decides to postpone the primary, he might need the legislature’s concurrence. So far, negotiations among legislative leaders and the governor haven’t produced agreement on a new primary date, sources familiar with those talks said. There’s also no consensus on whether voters should be required to cast their ballots by mail – another option that legislators and election officials find increasingly appealing as more COVID-19 cases are confirmed in Pennsylvania.

In response to the epidemic, state and federal lawmakers have introduced bills that would cover the costs of mailed ballots.

Some counties – including Berks, Bradford, Dauphin, Montgomery, Northampton and Wyoming– say they could handle an all-mail primary if it happened April 28.

But preparedness varies widely across the state, says Lisa Schaefer, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

In Columbia, Lycoming and elsewhere, officials are trying to figure out what would be entailed to properly gear up, given the likelihood that more voters will opt to mail ballots if the public health crisis continues.

“I think counties are very quickly coming to the opinion that this needs to be postponed as long as possible, and that it probably needs to be conducted entirely by mail in ballots in order to protect public health,” Lehman said.

Another challenge for an all-mail vote: How counties would serve voters who use an audio ballot or require other accommodations.

“A postponement will offer us an opportunity to continue to work with the General Assembly and the Governor’s office to determine the most appropriate way to implement the primary election in this unprecedented situation … and give us time to ensure that counties can continue to deliver fair, accessible and secure elections,” Schaefer said in an email. —Emily Previti

Coronavirus news around Pa.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A person window shops at an temporary closed business in Philadelphia, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • Pennsylvania businesses could face penalties if they don’t comply with emergency closure mandates. State officials instituted a statewide shutdown earlier this week. But Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order Thursday that took it further, pledging enforcement by state and local authorities for “non-life-sustaining” enterprises that don’t close before the weekend, Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbus reports. GOP leaders in the state legislature and many in the business community are hopping mad about Wolf’s order.

  • Pennsylvania students won’t take any standardized tests this year. The Department of Education announced the “extraordinary decision” Thursday prior to before applying for a federal waiver to cancel the PSSA tests for elementary school students, Keystone Exams given to high schoolers and the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment, Avi Wolfman-Arent reports for Keystone Crossroads.

  • Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court issued an order Wednesday to halt all evictions, just as other states — including NJ, SC and Virginia — are doing. California and Connecticut are some that have not. The Trump administration is also working to stop evictions.

  • About 20 percent of Pa.’s licensed child care centers are trying to stay open through a waiver program meant to free up parents who work as first responders or in other essential roles requiring them to work out of their homes during the COVID-19 outbreak. Initially, Wolf called for all such centers to close. There’s been confusion over the change of course and how to proceed while awaiting a decision on waiver applications, PA Post’s Ed Mahon reports.

  • There are not enough ICU beds in Pennsylvania to accommodate the many people who will need critical care if coronavirus continues to spread. WITF’s Brett Sholtis teamed up with The Inquirer‘s Nathaniel Lash on this story. A scary excerpt: “Predictions for the total share of the population that could be infected in an unmitigated scenario have reached as high as 80%. If the virus ends up infecting over 40% of the population, there’s no scenario where Pennsylvania’s existing systems will be able to treat all patients at the outbreak’s peak.”

  • Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is in self-quarantine after learning two colleagues tested positive for COVID-19. In a video address, Peduto told constituents he feels fine and doesn’t have any symptoms, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reports.

  • Berks County has released some jail inmates who’ve served their minimum sentence so incoming prisoners can be quarantined, according to this Reading Eagle story. In Philadelphia, more than 100 children were released from a juvenile detention center — but advocates say many more should be let go, Ryan Briggs reports for WHYY.

  • The ACLU of Pennsylvania and other advocacy groups are demanding the state Department of Corrections follow suit by releasing non-violent prisoners. They also want DOC to reassess how they house those who remain because the commonwealth’s facilities aren’t suited to manage their populations amid a pandemic, PA Post’s Joseph and Spotlight PA’s Cynthia report. Over at The Appeal, they report that judges are still imposing cash bail for non-violent crimes, even in the COVID-19 hotspot of Northampton County.

  • Some 120,000 Pennsylvania workers filed unemployment claims during the first two days of the state’s shutdown, Spotlight PA reports. That’s sure to grow, as layoffs continue — including thousands of Philadelphia airport workers expected to lose their jobs any day now as airlines slash service, WHYY’s Katie Meyer reports.

  • Two Penn State students have tested positive for COVID-19, the first announced by the university, after returning from traveling abroad, WPSU reports.

  • Centralia’s “Graffiti Highway” attracted more than 250 people Tuesday, the first day of Pennsylvania’s statewide shutdown and health directives to avoid groups of more than 10 in an effort to contain the coronavirus, The News-Item reports.

Coronavirus science:

Clarification: Giant announced earlier this week it would limit each customer to two essential items such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies in an effort to curtail excessive hoarding. The mention in yesterday’s edition of The Context should have been more precise.

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