Mail-in voting delays in primary cause Pennsylvania to sound alarm about November

Expansion of mail-in voting will likely delay the state's presidential results.

June 9, 2020, 3:04 PM

With Pennsylvania's presidential and statewide primary June 2 its first election in which any voter could choose to vote by mail, election officials were always prepared for an increase in applications to do so.

What they weren’t expecting was the coronavirus pandemic and the 17-fold increase in voters wanting to cast their ballots away from the polling precincts.

Now, a week after the primary, votes are still being counted, leading local election officials to sound the alarm, warning America may not know the outcome in the battleground state on election night in November.

“We don't want the world on our front step, waiting for us to tell them who won. It's as simple as that,” said Lee Soltysiak, the chief operating officer and chief clerk for Montgomery County, a suburb of Philadelphia.

Soltysiak told ABC News Monday that he expected to be done tabulating all the ballots received by the time polls closed at 7 p.m. on June 2 but that didn’t include any of the approximately 5,800 additional ballots received after that point that still need to be counted.

PHOTO: Gov. Tom Wolf, holds a "black lives matter" sign walking alongside Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, right, with demonstrators, June 3, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa.
Gov. Tom Wolf, holds a "black lives matter" sign walking alongside Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, right, with demonstrators, June 3, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa.
Mark Scolforo/AP Photo

In a normal election, ballots must be received by the times polls close, but as counties faced mass protests in addition to coronavirus, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed an eleventh-hour executive order extending that deadline in six counties, including the two most populous in the state -- Philadelphia and Allegheny -- allowing any ballots postmarked by June 2 that arrive before 5 p.m. Tuesday June 9 to be counted as well.

While it isn’t uncommon for states which have higher percentages of mail ballots to take longer to count and report their election results, historically, these states aren’t the states that could decide the presidential election.

It’s unclear how big of an issue coronavirus will be in the fall, but in a state like Pennsylvania, where President Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton was just 44,292 votes, seeing the same massive influx in vote-by-mail ballots could leave the election uncalled for days, as election officials process those ballots.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said the primary went “remarkably smoothly,” and called the mail-in ballots a “huge success,” but even so, she also said she was “absolutely” concerned about the general election.

"This surge is one thing, but I think we could expect a lot more than this in November," she said during a press conference on election night. "Even without COVID-19 people now, you know, have a head start on knowing this exists and to have this amount of volume, and participation and engagement is likely we'll likely see that again."

“Due to the change in the election law, people need to realize that this is a different world we're living in now,” said Nick Custodio, the deputy commissioner under Commissioner Lisa Deeley in the city of Philadelphia. “It's going to take longer than normal to get all the results.”

On Monday, Custodio said the city was doing “reconciliation with the poll book,” to make sure all the vote totals are accurate. He expected they’d begin counting again Tuesday. He told ABC News that city officials are already looking at ways to speed up the counting process for November, but it is hard to know for sure what the state of play will be and if the need for increased vote-by-mail will still be as great come time for the general election.

But those tasked with running elections in the state face hurdles that, unless the legislature takes action before November, will again slow them down in delivering results.

Under the election reform bill signed into law in October, Act 77, can’t begin opening mail-in ballots until after the polls close. The deadline to apply to vote by mail is just one week before Election Day, which makes for a tight turnaround in the mail -- even under normal, non-coronavirus circumstances. And instead of the mail in ballots going to precincts to be counted in small batches, they now must be counted centrally.

"I can tell you now if nothing changes with the canvassing rules in P-A, there is no way anybody can responsibly call the presidential race in November. No way at all," said Forrest Lehman, the director of elections for Lycoming County, which processed 10 times more applications to vote-by-mail this primary.

“The law needs to match up with the logistics and the reality here,” Soltysiak told ABC News ahead of the election. “It's obvious. And it's fixable, right?... the solution to it is so clear that it, it really is a shame we're all still spending time talking about it.”

Voting rights advocates and election staff alike worry that they won’t have the resources they need to pull off the election.

In Philadelphia, the chair of the city commissioners, Lisa Deeley, warned in a city council meeting ahead of the primary that without a budget increase, “We would be in danger of not being able to have the November Election stand up.”

PHOTO: Residents wait in line outside the Wilkinsburg Municipal Building to cast their vote during primary voting, in Pittsburgh, June 2, 2020.
Residents wait in line outside the Wilkinsburg Municipal Building to cast their vote during primary voting, in Pittsburgh, June 2, 2020.
Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo

In Northampton County, one of Pennsylvania’s three pivot counties which twice voted for Obama and then President Donald Trump, election officials said additional emergency staffing and hours of overtime were the only ways they were able to pull off the mail-in voting expansion.

When asked by ABC News if she felt her officials had enough funding and manpower to handle election changes, Amy Cozze, the county’s chief registrar, said they did not.

“We made it happen because we're awesome, and my staff is awesome but no we did not have enough resources. We did not have enough manpower,” she said. “What we were just asked to implement was unprecedented, and it was unfunded, and it was not backed up by the state. It was very difficult, and we know that it's going to be twice as difficult in the fall. We're not really sure how it's going to happen.”

Cozze told ABC News that in addition to the eight extra employees brought on to help process ballots on the front-end of the election, she already went to her county commission to ask for additional space to store ballot materials and two more full-time employees.

“We have to expand our office just to accommodate, literally to accommodate, all the balloting materials. So, yeah, we have a laundry list of needs if we're going to make November go smoothly,” she said.

Voting rights groups and Democrats also have a laundry list of needs that they’d like to see met, starting with calls to officials to implement further reforms to make the ballot box more accessible.

“We feel like officials are short of filling their obligations to democracy. Pennsylvania voters faced unnecessary hurdles to the ballot and returns election, and it's definitely laudable that Pennsylvania officials processed almost 2 million mail-in ballot applications,” Scott Seeborg, the Pennsylvania state director of All Voting is Local, said on a post-election call with reporters last week. “And at the same time, it's the responsibility of our officials to ensure that every eligible voter can safely cast the ballots that count.”

On the call, advocates pushed for ballots to automatically be sent to every registered voter in the state and for postage to be paid on ballot returns. They also pushed for vote centers, where any voter could go to regardless of where they live, and not just the one polling precinct assigned to them based on their address.

Suzanne Almeida, the interim director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said adding more secure ballot drop boxes would be an easy and cheap way for counties and local election officials to increase accessibility.

“Many of these reforms that we're looking at are systemic and require and require significant additional funding,” Almeida said. “It's a culture shift in Pennsylvania, as this is the first election we've ever voted by mail by these numbers.

“Folks need to understand that it's better to get it right than to get it quick. That we're just not going to see the kind of results on election night, when we see 2 million absentee ballots. And that's okay, that it's not evidence of shenanigans,” Almeida said.

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