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Pa. among states eyeing expanded options for voters with disabilities

Online voting eyed for some who can't cast ballot in person

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
 Nadette Cheney wheels in boxes of printed ballots at the Lancaster County Election Committee offices in Lincoln, Neb., April 14, 2020.

Nati Harnik/AP Photo / AP Photo

Nadette Cheney wheels in boxes of printed ballots at the Lancaster County Election Committee offices in Lincoln, Neb., April 14, 2020.

York County is scrambling for poll workers, like plenty of other jurisdictions across Pennsylvania. Officials went on Twitter yesterday to call for recruits ahead of county commissioners’ vote today on whether to consolidate polling locations, which could reduce the workforce needed at the polls on June 2. It’s unclear to what extent York officials will utilize that option. About 12 percent of York’s registered Democrats and Republicans had requested mail and absentee ballots as of yesterday, according to our analysis of the latest DoS stats. But that could change a lot during the 13 days remaining until the May 26 application deadline. —Emily Previti, staff writer

Nati Harnik/AP Photo / AP Photo

Nadette Cheney wheels in boxes of printed ballots at the Lancaster County Election Committee offices in Lincoln, Neb., April 14, 2020. (Nati HarnikAP Photo)

Voter participation was poised to set a presidential primary record in Nebraska before polls even opened Tuesday, thanks to early and mail-in voting.

Nebraska is the latest in a succession of states where a recent vote-by-mail expansion contributed to historic primary turnout. Nebraska Democrats wanted all mail primary, this Nextgov article shows that even some Republicans are supportive. In Nebraska and elsewhere, GOP officials have been reluctant to get behind voting by mail they believe it benefits Democrats. (FiveThirtyEight recently laid out evidence against any partisan advantage here.)

West Virginia, also cited in the Nextgov story, was originally scheduled to hold its primary yesterday along with Nebraska. However, Gov. Jim Justice (R) moved the date to June 9 (a week after Pa. and several other states will run theirs).

Turnout aside, W.Va.’s nominating contest will be significant for another reason — the state plans to launch a cloud-based option for voters with disabilities.

The state switched to Democracy Live’s OmniBallot Secure Select remote voting systems at the last minute after two cybersecurity studies flagged risks for ballot tampering and compromised voter anonymity posed by the Voatz app, which W.Va. used during the 2018 midterms for military voting.

Although many cybersecurity experts warn against online voting in any form, the pandemic has prompted some states — including Delaware and New Jersey — to start offering it to voters who face significant health or physical challenges to voting in person.

Pa. might move in a similar direction for the general election. Just over a week ago, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said her department will use some CARES funding to develop more options for voters with disabilities.

I asked DoS for details afterward, but the department hasn’t provided many. While Pa. hasn’t settled on a vendo, the idea is for counties to “upload a ballot or balloting material into an accessible portal for the voter to mark the ballot,” according to spokeswoman Wanda Murren, who declined further comment aside from saying the state expects to have the system in place by September.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey: the FBI is investigating vote-by-mail problems in local elections in the Passaic County cities of Paterson and neighboring Haledon (two of 17 all-mail municipal elections in N.J. Tuesday). More than a thousand ballots had been pulled for signature verification, resulting in many already being discarded, as of last night. The probe began after postal workers found bundles of ballots in mailboxes, according to this NBC report. (This Paterson Times story says social-distancing guidelines slowed election officials’ ability to count ballots last night.)

Best of the rest

Tom Downing / WITF

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing / WITF)

  • State legislators seeking re-election are bending pandemic-prompted rules meant to give them more latitude to relay critical information about COVID-19 to constituents. Normally, the Pa. House of Representatives prohibits lawmakers disseminating information from their official state offices within 60 days of an election. The House recently enacted an exception for coronavirus-related communications. However, in some cases, the resulting taxpayer-funded messaging reads “like a campaign ad. … The only thing missing is the electioneering statement at the end,” one policy analyst told Stephen Caruso of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

  • Speaking of the legislature, the Associated Press published a story Tuesday that looked at House and Senate office budgets. AP’s “review of invoices and more than 6,000 pages of spending line items by the state’s legislative branch last year found lawmakers often use the latitude their own rules provide to decide what to buy and from whom.” Examples: “Lawmakers spent public money to flavor their office water, buy fancy furniture, have locks changed and reserve choice parking spots.”

  • President Donald Trump’s Thursday visit to the Lehigh Valley will be his 18th trip to Pennsylvania during the past four years. This analysis by The Morning Call’s Laura Olson attributes Trump’s many returns to the commonwealth to his narrow victory here in 2016, and she notes his tendency to touchdown in Pa.’s purple counties (Northampton was one of three to flip Republican during the last presidential contest).

  • The state has installed a temporary manager at a nursing facility with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Pennsylvania. Health officials say they’ll maintain oversight at Brighton Rehab in Beaver County until the COVID-19 outbreak there is contained. The move comes as the state Department of Health faces a lawsuit over experimental treatments administered to residents who tested positive for the coronavirus, The Beaver County Times reports. Meanwhile, DoH is ramping up COVID-19 testing of nursing home residents and personnel statewide, Spotlight PA reports. And the state Attorney General’s office has launched its own investigation of several nursing homes, according to the Associated Press.

  • Over on the business waiver beat, Ed Mahon looked into why a Harrisburg hair salon/spa received permission to continue operating during the coronavirus shutdown. The business isn’t talking (yet), but the state insists it had a valid reason to grant the waiver: The salon was supplying bulk hand sanitizer to first responders and essential businesses. Related from LNPWho got business waivers in Pa? A martial arts dojo, a custom-sign maker and an events planner, and from the Reading EagleGilbertsville flag maker gets turned down to sell product for Memorial Day.

  • Green energy businesses have taken a hit during the pandemic, like most other sectors. Economic experts regard the industry as better poised than most to rebound. But, even then, renewable energy likely won’t see pre-COVID activity levels before next year, Anne Danahy reports for StateImpact Pennsylvania.

  • Philadelphia’s July 4 Welcome America festival is moving inside and online. Normally, outdoor events dominate the week-long fest capped off with a concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. More details are here, courtesy of Billy Penn’s Michaela Winberg.

  • Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, is openly transgender and has faced some pretty ugly comments about that fact (especially online) since the pandemic started. On Tuesday, a Pittsburgh radio host repeatedly addressed Levine as “sir” during the daily coronavirus press conference, prompting Levine to ask the host to stop misgendering her. The host, KDKA Radio’s Marty Griffin, says it was an honest mistake and apologized. But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto wasn’t having any of it, tweeting “will not support @KDKARadio behavior. Growing up, KDKA had good people who made us proud to be from Pittsburgh. Now, it shock-jocks, sensationalism & worse.” The Pittsburgh City Paper has more.

Further reading: 

You’re invited! 

Tonight at 7:00 p.m.PA Post and WITF are holding a virtual screening of two shot documentaries looking at different aspects of the coronavirus pandemic in Pennsylvania. The two videographers will answer audience questions, and all it takes to attend is clicking some links online. Please join us … and bring a friend (or two or three!). Details here.

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