Pennsylvania last year expanded access to voting by mail. Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law giving voters the option to vote by mail without having to explain why they can’t cast a ballot in person.

Now amid concerns over the highly contagious coronavirus pandemic, some of the state’s largest counties want the upcoming June 2 primary to be carried out exclusively via mail-in ballot.

The idea is to do away with in-person voting, which could put poll workers as well as voters at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. More than 34,000 people in Pennsylvania have contracted the virus and more than 1,500 have died, according to the state Department of Health.

The proposal already has support among some officials in Allegheny County as well as some of the hardest COVID-19-hit suburban Philadelphia counties, including Montgomery and Chester.

But the proposal has engendered some opposition – particularly across central Pennsylvania.

The idea of an exclusively mail-in primary amounts to too much too soon, said Gary Eichelberger, chairman of the Cumberland County Commissioners.

The June 2 primary already will entail substantial procedural changes, he noted, which in addition to the mail-in option, includes new voting machines.

“There is a considerable learning curve for election workers, poll workers, and voters, and a considerable potential for serious problems that goes up considerably in the mail-in scenario,” Eichelberger said.

The logistical requirements of a mail-in only election would require a herculean effort to pull off, and is something he seriously doubts that Cumberland County could execute with such a short notice. The newly law expanding voting by mail, which has generated considerable interest among voters, he said, already has required the county elections process to pivot to meet the demands.

“Given the bulk volume of applications we have already, we are seriously worried about being able to process this many applications, and meet the high level of reliability for all related processes and safeguards that an election needs,” Eichelberger said.

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The idea has also generated concerns over the cost of going to a mail-in only ballot.

“Would counties or the state provide a self-addressed stamped envelope?” asked Rogette Harris, chairwoman of the Dauphin County Democratic Committee. “I‘m concerned about poor communities in particular … that those not working right now would not mail their ballots back. I have a concern that it would not increase voting.”

Her concerns go far beyond cost factors.

Harris worries that making that change with only six weeks to go before the primary would disenfranchise some communities, particularly those accustomed to voting in person. Additionally, election officials would have to ensure that ballots were mailed to the correct addresses for all eligible voters.

Harris echoes the concerns highlighted in a joint report published Monday by the Center for American Progress and the NAACP. The report shows that doing away with in-person voting could disenfranchise millions of Americans.

According to the report, African-Americans are significantly more reliant on in-person voting than mail ballots. In 2018, only 11 percent of black voters cast a ballot by mail — less than half the rate of whites and Latinos.

“That’s my biggest concern,” Harris said. “We could potentially lose the voice of a very important section of the voting bloc.”

Harris argues that in spite of the number of variables in play – officials have two months to address them and put in place appropriate measures.

“The virus is here, obviously and while we know things will get back to normal, I see this as a first test,” Harris said. “Poll workers will have to wear gloves and instead of everyone using the same pen, we will all bring our own pen. This is the time to think through how we are going to vote differently due to a virus such as this one but, if we are going to have maximum participation, we need to have both.”

In previous years, Pennsylvanians could only vote by mail by requesting an absentee ballot. Voters would have to offer a reason they couldn’t get to the polls, such as illness or military service outside the state. Now, voters can request a ballot by mail without an excuse.

Across the country, dozens of states are scrambling to address the challenges of holding elections amid a pandemic, particularly in the wake of the election day debacle in Wisconsin earlier this month, which saw thousands of voters have little choice but spend hours in line to vote.

While only a handful of states have mail-in balloting exclusively, dozens more are debating proposals – widely along partisan lines – to do away with in-person voting in order to protect poll workers and voters from the coronavirus.

Pennsylvania, which is poised to play a critical role in the general election in November, has historically had a low mail-in absentee ballot voting record.

Some election officials argue that amid the planning for two distinctly different elections this year – and just months apart – a last-minute rush to do away with in-person voting could be disastrous.

“I do agree with some of my colleagues that with each passing day an all mail-in system becomes more challenging,” said Steve Ulrich, director of the York County Board of Elections. “The logistics of getting everything printed and getting it out with each day that passes we wouldn’t have time to spare.”

Still, the idea of scrapping in-person voting amid the pandemic has some support.

Doug Hoke, a York County Commissioner, said that given the circumstances and the threat of spread of the virus, older poll workers could back out at the last minute leaving thousands of polls unstaffed. Similarly, voters could be reluctant to turn out to vote amid the threat of the virus, he said. Either way, voter turnout could be adversely impacted, he said.

His fellow county commissioners have not debated the option, but Hoke said he is personally in favor of an all mail-in election.

“I‘m encouraging everyone to use the no-excuse ballot. I personally think it’s a good idea,” Hoke said. “There are a lot of variables but I personally think it’s a great idea.”

Some election officials are already making preparations for an all-mail primary, in case Wolf were to authorize the order through expansion of the emergency declaration.

But with June 2 fast approaching, it is unlikely that an “all mail” election would clear legal requirements. The governor’s office noted that the state does not not have options in place for voters with disabilities such as visual impairments.

Wolf in March signed legislation that delays the primary from April 28 to June 2 due to overriding concerns about the health and safety of voters, poll workers and election workers amid the coronavirus outbreak. Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for a provision to go with an all-mail primary against opposition from the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Wolf’s press secretary, Lyndsay Kensinger, said election officials are receiving “record numbers” of applications for mail-in and absentee ballots. She said the administration expects “that the primary election will be able to be conducted safely with significantly reduced polling places practicing best practices, and significantly increased mail-in balloting.”

Eichelberger is thinking ahead to the fall. He said it’s important that voters gain experience with the new voting machines prior to the general election, which is poised to have a potentially exceedingly large voter turnout.

For the more immediate primary, he said, county officials have already rolled out precautions to ensure the public’s safety.

“We have cleaning protocols already in place, and along with the use of gloves and distancing practices, we feel this provides a safe environment for those who actively choose to exercise the right to vote in person,” Eichelberger said. “The email-in option exists for those who desire it.”

Voters can apply for mail-in ballots through May 26. The state’s election website offers applications to vote by mail.


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