Citizens of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, Push Your Leaders to Get Election Day Right

Our city and state will be in the world spotlight on November 3rd. There are three things we can do right now to ensure that we're a shining beacon of democracy come Election Day.

We can learn from the June primary how to get November’s Election Day right. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

The past four months have presented us with a series of careening crises. Another potential crisis looms large, but we know this one’s coming, and we can prepare for it properly. November 3rd is Election Day, and our collective challenge is to make sure that this election proceeds without a hitch, that voters and election workers are kept safe, that we plan for and deliver the logistical and timely processing capacity for the anticipated high turnout, and that every vote gets counted properly. Philadelphia and Pennsylvania will be in the national and world spotlight, and we must get this right.

This challenge is not about who wins the presidential election — it’s about making sure that voters and candidates trust the process. Interest in the 2020 general election will be high, with potentially extraordinary participation. We know what happens if we don’t get it right: The challenges posed to election administration by COVID-19, economic dislocation, and simmering societal discord create scenarios in which voters are disenfranchised, information voids are filled with inaccuracies, and an already shaken democracy is further destabilized.

Recent primary elections in Wisconsin, the District of Columbia and Georgia have only served to underline the scope of the challenges we face in holding a fair, accessible election with results in which the public can have confidence. We must realize the lessons from these primary elections, and from our own, in order to develop plans that avoid similar outcomes and marshal resources necessary for the safe, accessible and accurate election that American democracy deserves.

We believe three key imperatives deserve our full attention:

  1. We must ensure that voters and poll workers are fully aware of and educated about their options and responsibilities;
  2. We must expand voter access; and
  3. We must manage our election process efficiently and effectively.

The first of these presents an opportunity to leverage a relatively new voting tool available to Pennsylvanians that would tear down traditional electoral participation barriers and ensure public safety while the coronavirus continues to circulate — vote-by-mail.

Pennsylvania’s Act 77 enabled voters to access mail ballots without the eligibility requirements normally applicable to absentee ballot voting. This flexibility is more important than ever. We already saw a surge in vote-by-mail reliance in June’s primary election, and we can expect that to only grow for the November election. Now is the time for election boards and other community leaders, like the Committee of Seventy, to disburse applications widely, inform the public of the application process and flexible eligibility, and educate voters about how they can safely return their completed ballots.

Our election boards should also begin robust poll worker training. Despite the availability of vote-by-mail, thousands will still choose to vote in person this November. Poll workers should be trained in how to keep themselves safe, what do to with voters who may have received a vote-by-mail ballot, and how generally to handle an election that will operate under unprecedented conditions.

The second challenge creates an opportunity to vote that has never before been available. Act 77 allows election boards to create satellite offices where individuals can submit vote-by-mail applications in person. These offices aren’t just responsible for receiving and processing applications — they are also required to provide voters with actual ballots (once ready) so they can vote on-site. There is no limit on the number, location or hours for these satellite locations.

Theoretically, it is now possible to allow citizens the opportunity to vote in person on weeknights and weekends, eliminating work schedule obligations that may otherwise block them from accessing a polling place. Election boards can also provide additional secured drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballot submissions that can ease concerns voters may have about the efficiency of the Postal Service. All of these measures create an unparalleled opportunity to expand the practicality of the right to vote. If we leverage these new opportunities, we can be a model of what democratic participation looks like.

Lastly, if we take steps to properly inform the electorate, provide our poll workers with the tools necessary to administer the election, and expand voting opportunity platforms, we should expect participation levels we ordinarily could only hope for. But high voter turnout will require the back-end ballot processing capacity to provide a timely and accurate result. A drawn-out ballot canvass, with an unknown outcome, could create a national crisis. Election boards must have the personnel and equipment on hand to count the vote.

Counties across Pennsylvania also urgently need the legislature to authorize the counting of mail-in ballots BEFORE Election Day. When a third, a half or more of the vote comes in by mail, as happened in Pennsylvania’s June 2nd primary, allowing the canvass to start earlier just makes sense. Having results sooner would increase public confidence — something we should all want, regardless of who wins.

Philadelphia is the cradle of democracy, and this November, if we all work together, this city and region can show the world what it means to deliver democracy. This responsibility falls on all of us — public and private community leaders and average citizens alike. If we fail to act now, knowing the timing and extent of this predictable crisis, we will have no excuse for failure and breakdown. Let us not allow another crisis to cripple our democracy.

Urge your local, state and national leaders to provide the support and funding necessary for the exercise of this most basic American tradition — a free and fair election.

Dwight Evans is the U.S. Congressman for Pennsylvania’s 3rd District; David Thornburgh is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.