Four Ways Election Day in Philly Could Go Terribly Wrong
From long waits at the polls to delays in counting ballots, there could be significant problems. But there are steps voters can take to help now.
As the 2020 general election draws ever nearer, COVID-19, delays at the post office, and the economic crisis threaten to turn early November here into a Florida-circa-2000 catastrophe of chaos and voter suppression.
It’s a situation Pennsylvania public officials are well aware of. Governor Tom Wolf convened a meeting over the summer with Philadelphia’s city commissioners, who oversee the city’s elections. Meanwhile, state legislators have been haggling over ways to avoid problems.
We talked to a number of voting experts about what could go wrong — and what can be done to make the process go more smoothly.
1. It could take a long time to count all the votes.
Large-scale vote-by-mail is new this year in Pennsylvania thanks to the state legislature’s bipartisan passage last fall of Act 77, which approved no-excuse absentee voting. (Some 27 states and D.C. added or expanded mail-in balloting this year, though our Act 77 was passed before the COVID crisis.) Given the arrival of a deadly pandemic, it’s turned out to be an invaluable option for tens of thousands of voters in Philadelphia alone.
While President Trump has made mail-in balloting his battleground, you can rest assured that vote-by-mail fraud is the least of our current election challenges.
County election offices across the state are grappling with how, exactly, they’ll deal with the popularity of the measure — specifically, how to count the anticipated avalanche of mail-in ballots in a reasonable time frame. Before this year, the most mail-ballot applications Philadelphia ever received was just over 23,000, in the 2008 general election. This year’s primary season saw the city commissioners’ office swamped with some 225,000 applications. It’s no shock that the office didn’t have the personnel, procedures or infrastructure (think: equipment like letter-opening machines) to cope, particularly when you factor in staffing challenges created by the pandemic.
It ultimately took two weeks to count all the primary votes in Philadelphia. In a general election that’s expected to see at least twice the primary turnout, it’s not hard to imagine a disaster scenario.
As Philly’s canvass process now stands, the city concentrates its Election Day efforts on administering the polls; mail-in ballots aren’t opened until the day after, according to city commissioner Omar Sabir. Unless something changes, that would translate into hundreds of thousands of votes in Philly that won’t even begin to be processed until November 4th.
“If it’s a close election in November for the White House and we’re waiting for Pennsylvania’s results, it could be not just Pennsylvanians, but Americans and folks across the world waiting for our county election offices to finish counting ballots,” says Pat Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, the Philadelphia good-government organization.
Even if Philly’s commissioners manage to bolster the city’s mail-ballot-counting capacity, they and election offices statewide will be haunted by Pennsylvania’s impractical election laws.
Particularly grievous to local voting-rights activists and the commissioners’ office is the inability to “pre-canvass” mail-in ballots — that is, scan the barcode on the ballot, prepare the ballot for counting, and in some cases begin to tabulate the vote (without releasing that information publicly). Pennsylvania’s legal provision against pre-canvassing — it’s allowed in some form in 36 states — is a large part of what might lead to a weeks-long delay in election-result tabulation.
In Harrisburg, Democrats are pushing for legislative changes that would speed things up, including allowing ballots to be scanned and opened three weeks before Election Day. The GOP-controlled House recently passed a bill that would let ballots be opened three days before Election Day — though Wolf opposes the legislation because it would also limit how long voters have to request ballots.
Then there’s the current law in Pennsylvania dictating that ballots must arrive at the election office no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day. Even if voters postmark a mail-in ballot days or weeks before the election, late arrival could mean the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters. Governor Wolf has appealed to the state Supreme Court to extend mail-in voting deadlines.
2. There could be issues with drop boxes.
Partly in response to Pennsylvania’s disregard for postmarks on mail-in ballots, and as more and more voters begin to doubt the ability of the USPS to deliver come Election Day, many experts are advocating the use of drop boxes, which let voters submit their absentee ballots directly to the election office, without sending them through the mail.
“Having that ability to just go and drop [the ballot] off to an election official or into a secure, monitored drop box would make a huge difference in people’s confidence in the process,” says Lauren Cristella, chief advancement officer of the Committee of Seventy and president of the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia.
But the use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania is an “if” this year due to a recently filed lawsuit by the Trump campaign and several GOP representatives; the suit points out that Act 77 only mentions allowing drop boxes at county election offices and not at a larger range of locations, an option that was employed in the primary and that Democrats hope will be allowed in the general election. Though the suit is currently on hold, Republican state legislators doubled down on this push to ban drop boxes in recent legislation that cleared the House.
Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director of All Voting Is Local, stressed in a recent statement the importance of drop boxes as a “vital lifeline for voters to be heard” during the COVID-19 pandemic and offered a rebuke of the Trump campaign’s lawsuit.
“Every decision about our elections needs to be made in the best interest of voters’ health and safety and the sanctity of our democracy,” he said in the statement. “We are confident the courts will dismiss this suit for the sham it is.”
The GOP lawsuit was filed after a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania’s NAACP which, along with other lawsuits, seeks measures such as in-person early voting, stricter limits on polling place closures, and the automatic sending of mail ballot applications to all voters. Kenneth Huston, president of the state’s NAACP, sees the drop box ban and vote-by-mail disinformation from President Trump as state-sanctioned voter suppression.
“As American citizens in a democracy, the right to vote and access to vote should not be a challenge for anyone. Particularly people of color — it was only 55 years ago that we had the right to vote,” Huston says, referring to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “We see this administration has declared war on people of color and the right to vote.”
“Every American citizen should see this as a threat to our democracy,” he continues. “Every citizen, whether you’re a person of color or not.”
3. A shortage of poll workers and polling places could mean extra-long waits on Election Day.
While interest in mail-in voting has skyrocketed this year, in-person voting will remain a critical part of Election Day in Pennsylvania. But if nothing changes, we could expect lines twice as long as those we saw during the primary, when some voters had to wait more than 90 minutes to cast a ballot.
The emergency measures Philly took in the primary election to close 77 percent of its polling locations — moving from 831 polling spots down to just 190 — were largely due to a severe poll-worker shortage. According to Sabir, Philly had already been operating at a 50 percent poll-worker vacancy rate in recent elections. With the pandemic and the fact that the majority of poll workers are typically over age 60 — a population at high risk for COVID-19 — the vacancy rate hit an all-time high in the primary.
Another factor: Firehouses and senior facilities can’t be used as polling locations due to pandemic-related restrictions. That initially left Philly with 650 usable locations, which they’ve since upped to more than 800 locations, Sabir says — but only if we have enough poll workers to staff them.
Cristella at the Committee of Seventy is currently working to ensure that new poll workers receive adequate training, especially with the city’s new ExpressVote XL voting machines, which many voters will be using for the first time this November.
“I truly believe long lines and mismanaged polling places are a form of voter suppression,” Cristella says. “So the more we can do to recruit and effectively train poll workers, the better off we’ll be on November 3rd.”
If you’re willing and able to be a poll worker, check out Power the Polls, a national online interface that has so far recruited 2,000 new poll workers for the Philadelphia area, according to the organization’s Pennsylvania project director, Susan Gobreski. (Its goal is 6,000.) The site is particularly focused on encouraging younger people to get involved; in Pennsylvania, you only need to be 17 years old to work the polls.
4. Lack of funding could lead to issues — and big-time voter confusion.
Along with health concerns related to in-person voting, the pandemic presents the dilemma of a scarcity of resources. For the election, the city commissioners’ office saw its budget slashed: Though it was originally slated to have $21 million for 2020, the commissioners’ city funding reverted to last year’s budget of $12 million.
Philly’s commissioners were recently met with a shocking comparison when they took a trip to Denver to learn from that city, which has 20 years of experience in holding primarily mail-in elections. In that city of 400,000 potential voters, the election office is working with almost $9.5 million for 2020. Philly’s $12 million is meant to support three times the number of potential voters and the herculean task of running two separate elections at once: one in-person, and one by mail. (Indeed, the numbers here were evenly split in June’s primary: About 175,000 mail ballots and 175,000 in-person ballots were cast.)
In August, the city received a $10 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, much of which will be used for equipment to speed up the vote-counting process. Sabir and fellow Philadelphia commissioners Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt recently requested $6 million in additional funding from the state, but Sabir doubts their office will see those funds or any federal dollars.
Private funding, Sabir notes, could help. While private entities can’t fund the commissioners’ office, their contributions might be the city’s only shot at a robust outreach campaign. Sabir is spearheading the upcoming launch of a voter information and engagement app, but his primary goal is to take to radio and TV to inform voters about electoral processes and changes. Traditional campaign ads are soon to bombard the city, but we also need to fund messaging on how to vote, literally, including how to properly apply for, fill out and return a mail ballot.
What Can You Do?
Today, make sure you’re registered to vote, and at the correct address. Consider voting by mail to ease the burden on your local polling place. Flatten the mail-ballot application curve and apply for your mail-in ballot now (preferably online) if you haven’t already. If you’re able, apply to work the polls. Once you receive your ballot, mail it in as soon as possible and track it on the Department of State’s website, VotesPA.com.
You can contact the governor’s office here or your legislator here to demand funding and legal changes, but don’t underestimate the power of taking to social media and of taking on the role of trusted messenger for personal circles.
“We’re not going to have a million people all coming through the VotesPA.com website figuring out how to vote by mail,” says Christmas of the Committee of Seventy. “But if we have as many people as we possibly can taking it upon themselves to learn just a bit about these processes, that can actually be quite impactful.”
Remember that though this pandemic year has created massive flux, combating voter confusion and stimulating voter engagement is a perennial challenge. The challenge just happens to be a bit bigger this year.
“At the end of the day, people have to value elections,” Sabir says. “And that’s the point we have to get across, that elections are the voice of the people. And if people have their voice, they will get accountability from elected officials.”