Pa. voters embrace relaxed absentee ballot rules

But Pa. counties still struggling to prepare for in-person voting

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
Good morning, Contexters! Here’s another reminder that you can still apply for a mail-in ballot, without an excuse, for the upcoming presidential primary. The state pushed the deadline to May 26 when the nominating contest itself was delayed until June 2 —Emily Previti, staff writer

AP Photo/Morry Gash

A worker hands out disinfectant wipes and pens as voters line up outside Riverside High School for Wisconsin’s primary election Tuesday April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Well over half a million Pennsylvanians have requested an absentee or mail-in ballot, the Department of State confirmed Tuesday.

That’s already more than four times the number requested during the 2016 presidential primary — and we’re still six weeks out from this year’s contest. Before the pandemic, election officials anticipated an uptick of between 15 and 20 percent in mailed ballots because voters can now request them without an excuse.

Most county election directors we reached this week told us they’re processing requests fast enough to prevent much of a backlog.

More pressing concerns include opening polling places, even with more flexibility to combine and relocate them under Act 12, given the preemptive cancellations by poll workers and voting venue hosts.

We reported last week that with the expected staffing shortfall, more than a dozen counties favor an all-mail primary. We’ve since heard back from more jurisdictions (40, total) and at last check, election officials in 17 counties (home to nearly 3 million voters) favor a mail-only election, with a small number of in-person voting centers for those who need them. Several officials said the decision can be put off until just before primary Election Day, though one said it’s already too late to make the change.

Elections officials across the state are tasked with keeping voters and poll workers safe during in-person voting, mainly by equipping voting locations with personal protective supplies (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc.).

“Every county is desperate for poll workers. And with all this is going on, if they are willing to work for me, … I want to provide for all they need,” said Monroe County Elections Director Sara May-Silfee.

Four counties had a coronavirus test run of sorts during last month’s special statehouse elections in Bucks, Westmoreland, Mercer and Butler counties. Sanitizer and other supplies were widely available then, but little more than a month later those supplies are hard to come by and only a handful of counties report being fully stocked and ready to go.

Some county election officials say orders placed more than a month ago have recently been back ordered or canceled completely by vendors. Or they lost their claim to supplies already on hand because other county offices and personnel needed them first.

“We are all out there trying to get the same stuff, asking for the same stuff and coming up empty,” says Lycoming County Election Director Forrest Lehman. “The higher up this is handled, the better as far as placing an order like this. The state might be able to go to a different source that we can’t access.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State confirmed securing 6,000 personal protective equipment kits (containing gloves, hand sanitizer and masks) to “augment” what counties already have.

Each kit consists of antibacterial wipes, a few microfiber cloths, 20 masks and pairs of gloves, 10 hand sanitizer kits, 10 screen wipes and 10 headset covers, according to DoS spokeswoman Wanda Murren.

While the kits will help, each one doesn’t cover everything a polling location needs. And other details, such as cost and timing, weren’t immediately available.

“We’ll know more … after [counties] have finalized their plans for polling places, including consolidations,” Murren wrote in an email.

Other states with June 2 primaries also are taking steps to prepare. Washington, D.C. and Indiana have laid out rules requiring the wearing of masks and other protective gear. Rhode Island is essentially going all mail, with the state starting this week to send every voter a mail-in ballot and planning to open a limited number of sites for in-person voting. —Emily Previti

Earth Day turns 50

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Members of the Environmental Health Citizens’ Association of Korea wear costumes representing penguins and masks representing the viruses during an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

  • Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day (then called Earth Week). Writing for WHYY, two Philadelphia city officials promote a variety of virtual events planned for today. Speaking of which, WITF in collaboration with PA Parks & Forests Foundation and Earth Day 50 PA will host a virtual online screening tonight of the WITF original documentary Penn’s Woods: Cradle of Conservation. The event starts at 7 p.m. that day. RSVP here.

  • Reading Eagle editorial says, “Never forget that the advent of Earth Day in 1970 was a key moment in the development of a movement that made tremendous strides in improving what had been a disastrous situation. It led to the enactment of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among other measures. One need look no further than our own Schuylkill River to see how far we’ve come. What was once considered a dirty unappealing waterway is now the centerpiece for much of the region’s recreation. The same is true in many other places around the country.” The Eagle also talks with several Berks County residents to collect their memories of the first Earth Day.

  • Earth Day is also a good time to rewatch WITF’s documentary about Rachel Carson, one of the formative people in the early environmental movement, and her ties to Pennsylvania.

  • StateImpact PA reports on the American Lung Association’s latest report on the state’s air quality. Bottom line, it’s not good. The ALA’s study “ ranked the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas as among the most polluted in the country,” and found “more evidence that climate change is making it harder to protect human health.” Read Rachel McDevitt’s story here. The Post-Gazette also covered it, noting “the Tri-State metro region that includes Pittsburgh was the eighth-most polluted in the nation for airborne particle pollution or soot, and the only one east of the Mississippi River to earn a failing grade in that category.”

  • Spotlight PA is out this morning with an exclusive report about the Pennsylvania school employee pension fund having pledged $200 million to an investment fund with ties to Jared Kushner’s family and a major piece of Manhattan real estate — 666 Fifth Ave. Read Matt McKinney’s story here.

  • Rep. Mike Doyle, the longtime Democratic congressman representing Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in Congress, has a primary challenger from the left this year. WESA’s Lucy Perkins reports on Doyle and the man looking to replace him, University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson.

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