Coronavirus precautions and protests create problems but fail to disrupt Pa.’s primary election

The challenge now: Counting nearly 2 million mail-in ballots. Final results may take a week to tabulate

  • Emily Previti/PA Post

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. 

Many county elections departments warned well in advance that they would not begin tabulating results until Wednesday. Seven counties also will accept mailed ballots postmarked on or before June 2 for another week, thanks to 11th-hour court and gubernatorial orders.

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.” 

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.
  • People seeking to cast provisional ballots were improperly turned away. About 25 percent of calls to the Election Protection hotline reported this issue. Multiple voters in Lebanon County said their requests to vote provisionally were denied. These voters had requested mail-in ballots but decided to vote in-person because they were concerned their mailed ballot wouldn’t arrive at the county elections office before the 8 p.m. deadline Tuesday. The same problem arose there four years ago.
  • 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.
  • Philadelphia voters were supposed to get postcards notifying them of polling place changes. Many voters reported receiving them, but some did not and were confused about where to go to vote in person.
  • 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.”

 If we’ve missed your experience or community, please reach out and tell us about it.

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  

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