An election worker fills out paperwork at Harrisburg's 6th ward at the Susquehanna Art Museum, on June 2, 2020. Poll workers across the state were issued face masks to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
Emily is a reporter for WITF who’s been covering voting and elections since July 2019 as part of her former role with statehouse accountability news organization PA Post. She was the senior reporter for statewide public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads. Previously, she covered city hall for PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.), was a watchdog and city hall reporter at The Press of Atlantic City and reported for the Northwest Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
The results of Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary will likely take days to tabulate, and it may take even longer for election officials to assess how well the voting was managed.
The main holdup is the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots that counties must process — 1.8 million in all. No-excuse vote-by-mail took effect this year, and the coronavirus prompted many voters to mail in their ballots for the primary instead of voting in person.
A range of problems at in-person polling places were recorded across the state, but there were no reports of widespread disruptions. In some counties, new voting machines malfunctioned, but not enough to seriously delay voting. Long lines were reported in some cities.
In a Pittsburgh suburb, an ACLU-Pa. attorney got a court order to extend voting hours at Penn Hills library where voters were lined up in their cars waiting to park shortly before the 8 p.m. deadline.
And in a few places, there were reports of disputes over wearing masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The most serious complaint involved polling places in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where police and National Guard soldiers were positioned after days of protests and riots in the two cities. Voting rights advocates argued that the heavy presence of law enforcement officers and soldiers in riot gear was intimidating to some voters and may have suppressed turnout. Ahead of the primary, some election workers worried about safely transporting ballots for tabulation.
“The pressures on Philly and Allegheny are intense,” said Keystone Votes state coordinator Ray Murphy. “But considering everything, the primary’s been running relatively smoothly elsewhere in the rest of the state. If you think about a stress test, this has been very low stress. There aren’t many people out.”
Signs at Lower Paxton Township’s 21st precinct at Faith Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pa., on June 2, 2020.
Tables set up at the Paxtang Borough polling location in the city’s municipal building for voters to use to fill out ballots for the June 2, 2020, primary election.
A voter inserts her primary ballot into a scanner at the 21st Precinct in Lower Paxton Township at Faith Presbyterian Church, on June 2, 2020.
Signs outside the East Pennsboro 9 polling place, located at the East Penn Senior Center in Enola, Pa., on June 2, 2020.
A voter checks in at the Mount Joy Borough Municipal Office on June 2, 2020. Many polling places were equipped with plexiglass screens to minimize the chance of spreading coronavirus between poll workers and voters.
Bill and Mary Lynn Davenport getting ready to leave the Lancaster Township 8-D polling place at Millersville Bible Church on June 2, 2020. Mary Lynn said she did not experience any issues casting her primary ballot, though her husband Bill did.
Jim Mann, a Republican committeeman in York County, stands outside a polling location in York County on June 2, 2020.
In Dauphin County, voters now fill out paper ballots and scan into a machine. During the primary on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, they could bring their own pens or take one at check-in that would be returned and sanitized. Workers said they had plenty of PPE and sanitizer.
Poll workers at the 1st Ward/1st precinct in Harrisburg, Pa. wear face masks and shields to protect them against coronavirus during voting in the June 2, 2020, primary election.
A woman fills out her ballot at Harrisburg’s 6th Ward, located in the Susquehanna Art Museum, on June 2, 2020.
Charles Lessig, 73, said he was the first Republican to vote at his East Reading polling place (16 ward, 1st precinct) on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.
Voters fill out ballots at Susquehanna Township’s 2nd ward in Harrisburg, Pa. on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Pennsylvania’s 2020 primary was rescheduled from April 28 in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Still, the Election Protection hotline Keystone Votes runs in conjunction with the ACLU, Common Cause and other advocacy groups experienced a markedly high number of calls (more than 1,000) for a primary, according to Murphy.
The number of issues reported through the Department of State, meanwhile, were quite low, according to Pennsylvania’s top elections officer, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.
“Most calls were routine. Things like asking for polling place location, registration status, questions about their absentee or mail-in ballots, and other very routine questions,” Boockvar said.
Boockvar even canceled the second of two press conferences scheduled for Tuesday night, “based on how calm and peaceful and smooth today went,” she said.
The problems that were reported Tuesday bear closer attention because they could inform policymakers’ decisions as they prepare for the fall election. They include:
Voters waited in unexpectedly long lines in Philadelphia, attributable in some precincts to officials initially delivering the wrong machines. In Allegheny County, the Penn Hills Library parking lot was jammed with cars as polls were about to close, prompting last-minute court action to keep voting going an extra hour, as detailed here by WESA.
Ballot scanners malfunctioned in Bucks and Lancaster counties. The source of the problems were different (extra wide ballots in Bucks and barcode reading errors in Lancaster). Neither problems were widespread and appeared to affect only a small portion of voters. Voters were told their rejected ballots would be processed on different machines at central election offices later.
Health precautions were not consistently followed at polls across Philadelphia, Berks, Lehigh, Delaware and Dauphin counties. In Philadelphia, voters were supposed to be issued disposable gloves to use on the city’s touchscreen machines. That didn’t happen at every polling place, nor was there a process in place to clean touchscreens between voters in lieu of latex gloves. Poll workers refused to wear masks at voting locations in Swatara Township, Dauphin County, and Emmaus, Lehigh County. Some voting venues in Philadelphia were too small to accommodate social distancing with machines being as close as a foot apart in some places. Elsewhere (such as in Berks), there seemed to be a lack of vigilance about maintaining six feet between people at all times at some voting locations.
Voting rights organizations expressed concerns that the expanded police and National Guard presence in some Pennsylvania cities would deter some voters from going to the polls. “We are seeing and feeling the effects of the police response to the protests over the last few days,” Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, told The New York Times. But The Philadelphia Inquirer talked with voters who weren’t going to be stopped from voting: “In long and short lines, near boarded up stores, and in polling places within earshot of chanting protesters, Pennsylvanians came out Tuesday to cast their votes in the unprecedented midst of a deadly pandemic and the greatest urban unrest in a generation. Many said they voted as their own form of democratic expression, the importance of which felt heightened this week. Others said they were in line because their requested mail ballot never showed up.”
With contributions from: WITF’s Alanna Elder, Brett Sholtis and Rachel McDevitt; PA Post’s Ed Mahon, Anthony Orozco, Kate Landis, Ben Pontz and Joseph Jafaari; WHYY’s Miles Bryan, Katie Meyer and Zachariah Hughes; WLVR’s Tyler Pratt and WESA’s Lucy Perkins and Chris Potter