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Prelude to a Pa. primary calamity?

By all accounts, Wisconsin's Tuesday election was a huge mess

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots at Washington High School while ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat to vote in the state's presidential primary election, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee.

 Morry Gash / AP Photo

Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots at Washington High School while ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat to vote in the state's presidential primary election, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee.

I’m dismayed that I’ll never get the chance to traverse the Graffiti Highway in Centralia. The Daily Item broke the story — and posted some of the last images of the Columbia County relic — that property owners have decided to bury the spray-painted asphalt path. “The last month here, with all of the people out of work because of the coronavirus, it got totally out of control. Everybody’s been requesting that something get done,” borough Secretary Tom Hynoski (also director of the local emergency management agency) later told PennLive’s Charlie Thompson. So many people flocked to the paved trail as soon as state officials closed schools and non-essential businesses that social distancing seemed like it wasn’t really happening, as The News-Item documented at the time. —Emily Previti, PA Post reporter
Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots at Washington High School while ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat to vote in the state's presidential primary election, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee.

Morry Gash / AP Photo

Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots at Washington High School while ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat to vote in the state’s presidential primary election, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. (Morry Gash / AP Photo)

On Tuesday, Wisconsin became the first state to hold in-person voting while residents are under a “stay-at-home” order in response to the coronavirus outbreak (though Pennsylvania gets an honorable mention given its St. Patrick’s Day special elections).

News reports portrayed the voting in Wisconsin as a total mess. This Politico story explains the decade of political dysfunction there that set the stage for a last-minute wrestling match among the state’s branches of government over delaying the primary and extending absentee ballot submission deadlines

That all unfolded, keep in mind, well after a dozen states had already delayed their presidential primaries from April and May until June. The other states’ decisions came amid the increasingly universal expectation that the public health crisis would not recede until June, at least.

But in Wisconsin, the 11th-hour legal fight between the Republican-majority legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers led Evers to try to use his emergency powers to ban in-person voting himself.

He issued the executive order less than 24 hours before polls were to open — and nearly two weeks after his own statewide stay-at-home mandate. The Wisconsin GOP already was challenging a different court case that, ultimately, was upheld in a swift decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that effectively overturned the order from Evers, CNBC reported.

“We had justices working remotely issuing a decision that blocked voters’ ability to vote remotely,”  said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “So many aspects of what happened with the Supreme Court ruling are deeply troubling and raise grave questions about how often and how frequently made we may see the court interjecting itself in election battles.”

Remember, Pennsylvania was one of those states that bumped its 2020 primary. And along with that, state lawmakers put some rules in place that could lead to a better outcome here.

Both Wisconsin. and Pennsylvania, for example, moved to consolidate voting locations to try to address poll worker shortages.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers changed state statute to prevent counties from cutting the number of polling places to less than 40 percent of however many they’d have under normal circumstances. And they have to post the new list of addresses 15 days before the primary online and in the main county elections office.

Though Pa.’s policy still leaves room for a lot of variation among jurisdictions (and, some argue, could increase the chances for voter disenfranchisement), state guidance was extremely vague and late by comparison in Wisconsin. This map shows the impact in the state’s five largest cities. They varied: Milwaukee’s 180 voting locations became five; 92 became 66 in Madison.

Voters widely reported daunting lines, long waits and the crowds we’ve all been told to avoid, NPR reported.

Also, election officials counted some 7,000 empty poll worker slots that were only filled after Gov. Evers called in the National Guard  (an inevitability here in Pa., some election directors fear, if the pandemic hasn’t died down by June 2).

Clarke says that her organization got a lot of calls from people confused over where to show up in light of the polling place reorganization. But the number of those inquiries was a distant second to pleas for help from voters who never received the absentee ballot they’d requested.

Clarke and her colleagues arranged a conference call for reporters where we heard from a couple of the estimated 10,000 voters who never got their ballots. They described time-consuming efforts, begun weeks ago, to try to connect with local authorities to figure out their options. One was an emergency room doctor concerned about exposing other voters to the virus given the risk she could be an unwitting carrier; she ended up casting a provisional ballot. The other, a mother of three, talked to us as she braced herself to go to the polls because her ballot didn’t come in the afternoon mail as hoped.

Heading into Tuesday’s contest, it was unclear how Wisconsin officials would handle the anticipated avalanche of mailed ballots. Voters had requested more than a million ballots as of a week ago, five times the number during the 2016 presidential primary there, according to these stats posted by Fox6 Milwaukee.

Pennsylvania could also see a much higher number of voters requesting absentee or mail-in ballots. Early estimates that mail or absentee ballots requests would rise by 15 or 20 percent were made before the coronavirus outbreak and based mainly on state law changing last fall to permit voting by mail without an excuse. Already, more than 28,000 Philadelphia voters have asked for a mailed or absentee ballot — more than five times the number requested in advance of the last presidential primary, according to a statement sent Tuesday by City Commissioner Lisa Deeley’s office.

At least one Pa. election official is already calling for an all-mail primary. Berks County Elections Director Deborah Olivieri said the virus outbreak could still be a problem on June 2. “There are hurdles counties are going to be facing,” she told the Reading Eagle. “It would be so much easier for us if we scrapped the polling locations in favor of mail-in voting only. We’re talking to these state lawmakers about what we’re up against, but there has been no movement on this. I honestly believe that if they can’t say they would want their family member to work the polls then they shouldn’t allow in-person voting.”

Like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin had election litigation playing out in state and federal courts at the same time. That, Clarke says, creates confusion for the public and complicates matters for policymakers. But there are some important distinctions.

In Wisconsin, the lawsuits were related directly to potentially pushing back the primary and deadline for absentee ballot submission. The Pennsylvania cases focus on the ExpressVote XL voting machine. While they haven’t come to an official standstill, the courts are not exactly rushing to issue rulines. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar has requested a formal pause in proceedings in Commonwealth Court. In the federal case, it’s the judge’s move next, now that attorneys for each side have submitted filings that were due at the end of March. —Emily Previti

Best of the rest

Bryan Cutler

Image from Pa. House livestream

Pa. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) speaks Tuesday during debate over a bill to create a COVID-19 Cost and Recovery Task Force to track and manage the crisis while also developing long-term recovery plans. (Image from Pa. House livestream.)

  • “Booing the governor during a pandemic”: That’s how state Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) described a bill that passed the GOP-dominated House bill yesterday. Democrats say the measure is too cumbersome, given the rapid responses demanded of the state government during the pandemic, because it would require Gov. Wolf to notify the legislature “whenever he suspends, changes or ignores regulations or laws as part of his COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration,” PA Post’s Ed Mahon writes. The legislation now moves to the state Senate, which is back in session again today.

  • Remote control: The state Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would dictate how municipal governments hold meetings for the duration of the pandemic without a physically present quorum. Provisions include rules for advance public notice and participation, and a ban on action items unrelated to COVID-19. The measure also re-ups the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, which already was charged with crunching state healthcare numbers and now also would be tasked with analyzing the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on healthcare facilities. PA Post’s Ben Pontz has been following this story.

  • WHO’s to blame: U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R) wants an investigation into the man who runs the World Health Organization, arguing that WHO’s leadership helped China cover up how bad the virus outbreak was in that country, costing the world valuable time in responding, the Post-Gazette reports

  • Moral imperative: A federal judge ordered the release of 22 people from the prisons in York and Pike counties Tuesday in response to an ACLU of Pennsylvania lawsuit arguing those particular inmates are at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, for which multiple other prisoners at each facility have tested positive. Meanwhile, in Lancaster County: the president judge and district attorney hatched a plan to release some non-violent prisoners. Things took a bit of a turn, however, when Judge David Ashworth signed 75 release orders — including for some inmates with stalking and simple assault charges — without permitting the DA to review some of the cases, violating their initial agreement. Ashworth told LancasteroOnline he “felt it was the correct legal, moral and ethical decision.”

  • Fiscal actions: York County will furlough nearly 300 employees as commissioners stare down delayed, decreased tax revenue in light of the pandemic. The York Daily Record has preliminary details here ahead of commissioners hashing out details, including which departments will be affected. In Philadelphia, officials plan to develop an entirely new budget due to the COVID-19 outbreak, PhillyVoice reports.

  • That’s right, there’s a presidential campaign…: From The Morning Call, Joe Biden rallies Pennsylvania union workers from his basement.

  • Sad state of affairs: Are you getting inundated with scammy robocalls lately? The issue’s widespread enough that the United Way of Pennsylvania is launching a texting service to help users decipher which offers are legit, WITF’s Rachel McDevitt reports.

Coronavirus must reads: 

  • JSTOR Daily: Q&A with epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: Hydroxychloroquine is not proven to work against the coronavirus. Why not just try it?

  • Washington Post: New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s squashing it.

  • New York Times: How Will We Know When It’s Time to Reopen the Nation?

  • Wall Street Journal: A collection of first-hand accounts by health care professionals includes this comment from a physician: “[I]t’s really hard to understand how bad [the pandemic] is…if all you see are empty streets.” Another described “a flood of death that I cannot manage.”

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