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Pennsylvania’s Big Mail-In Primary Could Get Messy. What You Need to Know to Make Your Vote Count

“Preparing for this is sort of like an earthquake, a tornado and a hurricane hitting you at the same time every day,” says a city election official. But one observer says Philly has done an “adequate to good job” with the new process.


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Four years ago, you probably didn’t think it was possible, but if you’re beginning to feel that the 2020 presidential primary could end up just as much of a doozy as the 2016 general election, look no further than Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, one of three officials charged with overseeing elections in the city.

Speaking with Philadelphia magazine via phone last week, Schmidt described the impending June 2nd Pennsylvania primary as having the potential to be “not just a perfect storm,” but “a series of perfect storms.”

“You’re holding an election during a pandemic, with a relatively new voting system, with a mail-in ballot system that is being widely embraced,” Schmidt said. “Preparing for this is sort of like an earthquake, a tornado and a hurricane hitting you at the same time every day.”

Schmidt’s not alone. Understandably, the idea of holding an election in the midst of a pandemic has a lot of folks feeling somewhat bewildered. At the center of the mayhem is the fact that the state’s relatively new mail-in ballot system is being enthusiastically embraced, and some county elections offices are feeling strained.

Just how enthusiastically are people turning to mail-in ballots in the era of social distancing? As of May 26th, the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Office, for example, had received 208,000 applications for mail-in and absentee ballots for this election cycle. It’s difficult to provide a historical comparison to communicate exactly how big a jump that represents; a state election code modification passed just last year made voting by mail easier than ever in Pennsylvania by allowing, for the first time, all registered voters to request mail-in ballots via an online form. Before this election, the highest number of absentee ballots ever requested in Philadelphia was 23,200, for the 2008 general election.

With so many people participating in a newly adopted system (and one that relies on mail at a time when many people report experiencing delays from the financially stressed USPS), it’s natural to wonder how many problems might pop up this election season. But add in two other factors — that to prevent the spread of COVID-19 earlier this spring, employees in the Commissioners’ Office were forced to work in shifts, at a lower capacity, during an unprecedentedly chaotic election season; and that the Philadelphia Commissioners’ Office, like other City Hall offices, remains closed to the public — and you’ve got the potential for a bit of a mess in the city, one that’s being echoed across the state.

“Election day at any time is a massive endeavor,” Schmidt said. “To do it during a pandemic is a thousand times tougher.”

Despite the challenges it’s facing, the Commissioners’ Office says Philadelphia’s mail-in ballot system is under control.

A source inside the office said it cleared its backlog of mail-in ballot applications on May 25th, the day before the application deadline, and expects to mail out all ballots within a day or two of the 26th.

To prevent the spread of coronavirus earlier this spring, employees in the City Commissioners’ Office worked in shifts. Employees are unable to process voting applications or perform voting machine maintenance remotely; they must use the office’s 95 or so fixed computer terminals to work.

In mid-May, when the office realized that the number of mail-in ballot applications would surpass what it could process on its own, it requested additional city employees. Since then, roughly 115 employees from other departments (including the District Attorney’s Office, the Law Department and more) have volunteered to help field the influx of applications, the office said.

Along the way, though, there have been some bumps.

Daniela Mead, 42, of Grad Hospital, said she and her wife both applied for and received mail-in ballots this spring. After Mead accidentally signed her wife’s ballot, she began a long quest to procure a replacement. She said she called the City Commissioners’ Office several times, but no one answered. (The office said on Tuesday that employees have been busy processing applications and are answering voicemails as quickly as possible.)

At first, Mead said, she was confused because the office’s voicemail instructed her to call during business hours — which is what she was doing. After sending emails to City Commissioners Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir as well as calling Pennsylvania Voter Services (through which she said she was told she was the 52nd caller in line), Mead called the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s voter assistance hotline and got an answer. The woman she spoke with, she said, told her she was the 10th person to call that day — by just 10 a.m. — with questions about requesting a replacement ballot.

After about a week of seeking help, Mead was finally able to get in touch this week with the Commissioners’ Office, which said she should receive a replacement ballot by May 28th.

A source within the Commissioners’ Office acknowledged communication issues and said the office is going through voicemails and attempting to get in touch with voters who need help. In the past few weeks, employees have been working to eliminate the application processing backlog. The office stressed that one of the quickest ways to get in touch with employees is through social media.

But with the Commissioners’ Office closed to the public due to the pandemic, Mead maintains, there should be a more formal process to resolve ballot mistakes in the county.

Plus, Mead worries that at this point, if she waits to receive her ballot, fills it out, and puts it back in the mail, the office won’t receive it in time for her vote to count. Across the state, ballots must be received by county elections offices by 8 p.m. on June 2nd, the day of the primary election. Even if they’re postmarked before the deadline, they won’t count if they’re not in the office by then. The USPS has said to allow several days for mail delivery, which means people just receiving their ballots this week will be cutting it close.

Under normal circumstances, voters could opt to take their ballots directly to the City Commissioners’ Office to ensure they make the deadline, but because of the pandemic, the office is, yes, closed to the public. To address that concern — which is being felt across the state, including in Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Lancaster counties — the Commissioners’ Office has established a ballot drop-off box at City Hall.

The office expects to announce additional drop-off locations in the coming days, as other nearby counties have. Every ballot placed inside those boxes before 8 p.m. on Election Day will count, the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Office says.

In addition, those who worry that their ballots won’t be received via mail in time can show up at the polls on Election Day. (While this is exactly what those voters were trying to avoid, the option is worth mentioning.) Schmidt said voters who have requested or returned a mail-in ballot but worry it won’t be received in time can fill out a provisional ballot at the polls (which, yes, is another potential complication in this process).

In the event that your mail-in ballot is received on Election Day, the mail-in ballot will be counted and the provisional ballot will be discarded, he said. For those in Mead’s position — or similarly confused — you can track your ballot’s status on the state’s voter services website.

“If there wasn’t this online tracking system, I wouldn’t have even done a mail-in ballot,” Mead said. “But I’m wondering: If you can’t get in touch with anyone [in your county elections office], what will they do with the online tracking if it says [your ballot] was mailed but you don’t get it?”

Such was the problem for Montgomery County resident Dorian Snow, who went more than two weeks without receiving a ballot that she was told was printed and ready to mail to her on May 7th. To inquire after its status during that time, Snow said she reached out to the county’s election office and was told there were delays in processing ballots. The employee Snow spoke with told her she could order another one, but Snow said she had “no faith that that would be processed in time to receive it and physically mail it back.”

“I have two feet and can get myself to the polls if I need to,” Snow said. “But there are probably a lot of people who are incapacitated and can’t — the elderly, the sick.”

Snow received her ballot on May 23rd, 16 days after she was told it was processed for printing and mailing. She mailed it back on May 26th.

After receiving reports from residents like Snow, Montgomery County filed an emergency petition in Common Pleas Court on Tuesday to extend the mail-in ballot deadline by one week, arguing that voters would otherwise be disenfranchised. That’s separate from another lawsuit from a Democratic political group seeking a one-week deadline extension for the entire state.

Voting rights advocates are watching those lawsuits closely.

Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania director of the national voting rights advocacy group All Voting Is Local, says his organization has fielded many complaints regarding ballot delivery status.

Seeborg says one positive development amidst the mayhem is the fact that Philadelphia voters are receiving ballots with prepaid return envelopes. (Not all counties are taking that route.)

“We know that removes a [price] barrier and helps younger folks who may not have ever used a stamp before,” Seeborg says. “I think that in terms of using the best practices that we have at our disposal and even spending some money on [prepaid postage], Philadelphia has done an adequate to good job with the mail-in ballot process.”

Looking ahead to the general election this November, Seeborg says activists with All Voting Is Local hope to spread information that will make it easier for voters to understand the state’s mail-in ballot system, particularly in zip codes that had fewer than 1,500 vote-by-mail requests in the primary.

“We need to make sure we’re moving forward [to the general election in November] with a robust sense of lessons learned,” Seeborg says. “It’s never acceptable when the voters don’t get the information they need when they need it.

“Our goal needs to be pursuit of excellence,” he adds. “Whatever that takes, we’ve got to do.”