The scramble is on.
As we get closer to Election Day, election offices across Pennsylvania are grappling with preparations for a record number of mail-in ballots brought about by changes in the state voting law and the novel coronavirus pandemic, as well as possible record turnout in November’s election.
They’re coordinating poll workers, working to educate voters about “naked ballots,” opening satellite offices or setting up secure drop boxes, and, in one office, wrangling “The Dragon.”
That’s what James O’Malley, a Bucks County spokesperson, called a new tool that will help election officials sort ballots on Election Night.
He laughs when he talks about the monster machine, which the county bought with $500,000 in CARES Act money.
“We had to clear out a room for it,” he said.
Election officials across the state say they are doing all they can to make sure Pennsylvania doesn’t end up like Florida two decades ago, when the last drawn-out presidential tally ended before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“For years, we have trusted our election officials to be reliable and nonpartisan. Why should we suddenly not trust them?” Eileen Olmsted told the Associated Press. She works with the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan organization that advocates to expand access to voting.
County officials across the state talked about the huge number of mail-in applications, mailed-in ballots, and poll worker applications.
More than 2.6 million Pennsylvania voters had requested mail-in ballots as of Tuesday.
Bucks County, which is north of Philadelphia and has more than 450,000 registered voters, has already dealt with a surge of more than 160,000 mail-in ballot applications.
“There’s more coming in every day,” O’Malley said. And voters still have more than a week to request them.
Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and has more than 930,000 registered voters, is also seeing record numbers of mail-in applications. As of Friday, it had already sent more than 320,000 ballots in the mail to voters and 115,000 have already voted, said county spokesperson Amie Downs.
Approximately 29,000 of the ballots Allegheny County sent out were incorrect, and the county is working to send out corrected ballots and address any incorrect ballots that voters already sent back.
Allegheny County and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s biggest city, are also dealing with a rush of applications for poll workers.
Downs said Allegheny County officials expect to surpass their normal number of 6,600 poll workers.
And Philadelphia, which normally has 8,500 poll workers on Election Day, has received about 20,000 applications, Philadelphia City Commissioners spokesperson Kevin Feeley told WHYY this week. More than 7,200 of the applicants have already been assigned polling places.
“It’s an overwhelming level of interest,” he said.
Voters should feel secure their voice will be heard this election season.
“They should know all ballots properly cast will be counted,” he told The Keystone.
The state is, as usual, a crucial one for both campaigns.
Tied for the fifth-most electoral votes, it is of the utmost value to both Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden, a Pennsylvania native, has visited it more than any other state since Sept. 1, and TV spending is higher than in any other state except Florida, according to the political ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.
Up to this point, local election offices have been focused on voter education.
“Planning to make sure everyone knows how to vote” is important, O’Malley said.
This is where they have to deal with “naked ballots.”
Counties send mail-in ballots with two envelopes for voters to return. The first is a secrecy envelope, into which a ballot must be placed. The second is the actual mailing envelope. Voters also have to make sure they sign their ballot and the voter declaration on the mailing envelope.
With voting already underway, judges could still decide fundamental questions about running the election and which ballots get counted.
One lawsuit before the US Supreme Court involves a state court order to allow late-arriving mail-in ballots to be counted for up to three days after Election Day. Republicans have challenged the order.
Another case involves the Trump campaign’s efforts to limit the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots.
And the state Supreme Court just agreed to take a case involving ballot signatures. The state Secretary of State, a Democrat, issued guidance to county election officials, telling them they should not throw out ballots if the voter’s signature on the envelope does not match the voter’s signature in county records. Republicans are challenging that guidance.
“A huge concern I have is the confusion that outstanding litigation causes with election officials and voters,” Witold J. Walczak told The Associated Press. He is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “Confusion does not promote safe, accessible and secure elections.”
With the rush of mail-in ballots, elections officials are also adapting how they’ll accept ballots. Many have added secure drop boxes in locations around their county.
“Voters can pull up, put their blinkers on, and return their ballots to lock boxes,” Downs said.
Centre County, a rural county that includes Pennsylvania State University and sits in the middle of the state, has seven drop-off locations.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, Lackawanna County announced six drop-off locations would be available Mondays through Fridays.
Some counties are opening satellite locations for people to register, apply for mail-in ballots, and drop off ballots in secure locations.
Philadelphia has seven satellite election centers.
“It’s kind of one-stop shopping access to the ballots,” Feeley explained.
Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit to stop the city from having these locations. A judge threw out the lawsuit on Oct. 9.
Allegheny County will have several locations open over the weekends leading up to Election Day as well.
They will be open in different locations across the county to reach people in different areas, Downs said.
While dealing with the pandemic, and increased turnout, the counties continue working on the issues.
“It’s been quite an undertaking,” Downs said of Allegheny’s efforts. “We’re proud of the changes and updates we’ve made.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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