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Expanded vote-by-mail means having to open A LOT of envelopes

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
Berks County’s letter opener worked well processing mailed ballots -- but ruined the carpet, according to Assistant Solicitor Chad Schnee. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

 Emily Previti/PA Post

Berks County’s letter opener worked well processing mailed ballots -- but ruined the carpet, according to Assistant Solicitor Chad Schnee. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

Many public swimming pools won’t reopen this summer due to public health concerns over the coronavirus (for some, like the Lancaster YMCA, financial problems exacerbated by the pandemic are also a factor). But some outdoor aquatic centers in communities with relatively low coronavirus case counts plan regular summer seasons (e.g., Loyalsock Township, Lycoming County) or will open with adjustments, such as capping attendance at a fraction of typical capacity (see: Palmer Township, Northampton County), or requesting guests wear masks when not in the water, observe social distancing and otherwise minimize contact. This week, Pa. officials issued operating guidance (which is essentially the same as what the CDC advises) for pools located in Pennsylvania’s “yellow” and “green” zones. Is it safe? The CDC says chlorine should kill the virus, and there’s no evidence it’s transmitted through water; however, this potential question hasn’t been studied in depth. —Emily Previti, staff writer

Emily Previti/PA Post

Berks County’s letter opener worked well processing mailed ballots — but ruined the carpet, according to Assistant Solicitor Chad Schnee. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

With thousands of ballots still uncounted 10 days after Pennsylvania’s primary, policymakers are turning to how to improve the commonwealth’s election procedures before November.

The election code is critical. But so are administrative decisions made at the county level, such as equipment purchases.

Last week, the letter opener — arguably the most crucial vote-by-mail tool — was put to the test as more than 1.4 million Pennsylvanians enclosed their mail-in ballots in not one, but two envelopes.

Allegheny and Lycoming counties used the same model electronic letter opener, which has a capacity to slice thousands of envelopes per hour. Just opening mail-in ballots is a particularly labor intensive process that’s proving to be a daunting for jurisdictions across the state.

Using one device (purchased for $11,000, or about a quarter of the county’s CARES Act funding), Lycoming’s election staff processed about 7,500 ballots in 10 hours, according to director Forest Lehman.

In Berks County, election workers used two automatic “slicers,” as they’re sometimes called. It took them took twice as long to process five times the number of ballots — making their process more efficient, potentially.

Lehigh County received almost the exact same number of mailed ballots as their counterparts in Berks (39,900 versus 39,000) — and yet, it took an extra full day to complete its count. Lehigh ran three openers simultaneously, but workers had to slide one envelope through a machine at a time. And at some point during the second day of processing, they were down to two machines after the motor on one burned out, according to director Tim Benyo.

“Originally, I ordered a high-capacity scanner, but that’s what I got from purchasing,” Benyo said last week. “The numbers looked good, but the functionality didn’t meet our expectations.”

It quickly became apparent to Lehigh elections workers that their machine could be used to open the external envelope only (one of two enclosing each mailed ballot). Staff tried in vain to figure out a way to use the device to open the internal secrecy envelope, ripping dozens of ballots in the process. Each of those ballots had to be remade by hand (the typical procedure for paper ballots damaged in the mail, rejected by scanners, cast provisionally, etc.).

Philadelphia used the same openers as Allegheny and Lehigh, but hopes to buy a machine that can extract the ballots themselves for the general election.

“When you’re talking about 150,000 [ballots], anything you can do to save half a second adds up over the course of this whole process,” Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said late Thursday.

Best of the rest

Commonwealth Media Services

Gov. Tom Wolf (left) signed an order that directed the Department of Corrections, led by Secretary John Wetzel (right), to create a reprieve program for medically vulnerable inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. (Commonwealth Media Services)

  • At one point this spring, Pennsylvania corrections officials estimated they’d need to release 12,000 inmates to prevent the spread of coronavirus inside state prisons. Gov. Tom Wolf, facing opposition in the legislature and from prosecutors, law enforcement and victims rights groups, whittled the plan to just 1,200 prisoners. And yet, nearly three months later, Wolf has signed off on freeing just 159 people. What happened? PA Post’s Joseph Jaafari teamed up with Spotlight PA’s Matt McKinney to find out.

  • University of Pittsburgh professor Laura Putnam has been tracking protests against racism and police brutality across the commonwealth for weeks. What does the widespread nature of the protests mean? For one, “the breadth of protests in rural, traditionally conservative locations indicates a growing appetite for state-level policies on police conduct and accountability,” state Sen. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) told Elizabeth Hardison of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. One protest organizer noted that racial and economic inequality are intertwined. Read the full story here.

  • What does “defund the police” mean? According to panelists who spoke during a Lancaster NAACP online panel, it does not mean closing down police forces altogether, LNP reports.

  • Calls to Pennsylvania’s ChildLine have dropped dramatically during the months since the coronavirus epidemic prompted the closure of all schools in the commonwealth. May’s call volume was down 40 percent compared to 2019; April’s was 50 percent lower. The decline is not because abuse is happening less frequently, but because public school teachers and other staff typically play a big role in reporting child abuse, according to what state officials told Min Xian for her latest WPSU story.

  • Two bills are moving through City Hall in Philadelphia that would create protections for small businesses and workers amid the pandemic. One up for discussion today would create whistleblower protections for people who speak out about unsafe working conditions, Juliana Feliciano Reyes reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The other, modeled after temporary rules enacted in other U.S. cities, would limit fees from delivery apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash to 10 percent of an order’s total price — that’s a third of what most now charge local restaurants, according to The Inquirer’s Anthony R. Wood.

  • Boosters hoping to create the state’s 15th community college in Erie got some good news on Thursday, as the state Board of Education voted to approve a proposal put together by local leaders. The effort was in trouble as recently as last fall, thanks to strong opposition from the top Republican in Pa.’s Senate. Ed Mahon has the story for PA Post. For the local take, see’s coverage.

  • Public health officials are beginning to release data on how coronavirus affected Pennsylvania’s large Latino population. Doing this isn’t easy, as “Latino” is an ethnicity and not a race, and counties were not consistent in gathering information. Why does it matter? Anthony Orozco explains for PA Post. Related from The Morning CallCoronavirus hits an Allentown family hard — at least a dozen were infected and three died.

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