Why Pennsylvania is ground zero for mail-in voting debate

Leah Millis/Reuters
Supporters listen to President Donald Trump deliver a campaign speech at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Sept. 3, 2020.
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As states race to prepare for a high-stakes presidential election amid a pandemic, Pennsylvania is coming under particular scrutiny. Leading up to this year’s June primary, the state enacted its most sweeping electoral legislation in 80 years and overhauled voting systems in all 67 counties. Then the pandemic hit, driving a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots. It took two weeks to certify all the races and more than 37,000 absentee ballots were rejected – not far off from the 44,292 votes by which Donald Trump won the state in 2016.

No one wants to be the Florida of 2020 – with the country waiting on one state for weeks to learn the results of a contested presidential election. In Pennsylvania, a wide array of officials and organizations are doing their best to ensure that their state escapes that fate. They’re working around the clock for a fair, safe, and secure election – with clear and prompt results. 

“We were learning on the fly from February to June,” says Jeff Greenburg, the director of elections in Mercer County until August, when he stepped down to work for The National Vote at Home Institute. “I really think Pennsylvania is in a better position now. ... We have a much better chance of succeeding because we now know what to do.”

Why We Wrote This

There’s a lot of fear swirling around Election Day and what could go wrong, especially in states that are expected to have a small margin of victory. But look a little closer and there’s a wide range of people working to avert disaster.

The phone is ringing nonstop in Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County.

“Did the November election get delayed?” 

“Can I still vote by mail?” 

Why We Wrote This

There’s a lot of fear swirling around Election Day and what could go wrong, especially in states that are expected to have a small margin of victory. But look a little closer and there’s a wide range of people working to avert disaster.

“Why did my wife, who died in 2011, get an application for an absentee ballot with her name and address already filled in?” 

It’s the last category that drives county election director Forrest Lehman and his staff especially batty. Various groups, in an apparent bid to boost voter participation, are sending out a tsunami of pre-filled ballot applications based on voter data that is years out of date. And they have Mr. Lehman’s name on the return label. 

“Their first reaction is to call us and ask, ‘What kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running?’” he says, comparing it to a denial of service attack, which disables a website by flooding it with traffic. “We can’t get anything else done. ... Applications are just piling up while we answer questions.”

Across the country, as states are racing to prepare for holding a high-stakes presidential election amid a pandemic, swing states are coming under particular scrutiny. The tighter the race, the more possible it is that the election could be tipped by a relatively small number of voters who are unable to vote or whose ballots are delayed or disqualified. With a disproportionate number of mailed votes coming from Democrats and studies showing that minority voters experience higher rates of disqualification, such rejections could tip the presidential race to the Republicans. 

Even among the swing states for whom widespread voting by mail is uncharted territory, Pennsylvania stands out. Leading up to this year’s June primary, the state enacted its most sweeping legislation on election administration in 80 years and overhauled voting systems in all 67 counties. Then the pandemic hit, driving a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots, overwhelming local election officials. It took two weeks to certify all the races and more than 37,000 absentee ballots were rejected – not far off from the 44,292 votes by which Donald Trump won the state in 2016, propelling him to the White House. New polls show Mr. Biden’s lead shrinking to less than the margin of error, indicating a statistical tie with two months to go.

No one wants to be the Florida of 2020 – the one state that the country is waiting on for weeks to determine the results of a contested presidential election. In Pennsylvania, a wide array of officials from local election directors like Mr. Lehman up to Democratic state executives like Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and the Republican-led legislature are working around the clock to ensure that Pennsylvania’s vote is fair, safe, and secure – with clear and prompt results.

While Pennsylvania’s June primary raised concerns about the state’s ability to handle a greater influx of mailed ballots, some say it may in fact have helped build the state’s electoral muscles for a heavier lift this fall.

“We were learning on the fly from February to June,” says Jeff Greenburg, the director of elections in Mercer County until August, when he stepped down to work for The National Vote at Home Institute. “I really think Pennsylvania is in a better position now. ... To me we have a much better chance of succeeding because we now know what to do.”

Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP
Supporters cheer outside of Mill 19 on the Hazelwood Greenway, where Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden was speaking inside the building to a small group, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania.

Maximizing voter access while ensuring a secure vote

Pennsylvania was the first state to extend absentee voting to soldiers, before the deployment of thousands of troops to the Civil War caused other states to follow suit during the 1864 presidential election. Last fall, the state expanded the opportunity for voting by mail through Act 77, which introduced “no-excuse” absentee voting, created a 50-day window for voting by mail, and extended the deadline for registering and submitting one’s ballot. 

When the pandemic hit, the state was better prepared to accommodate voters concerned about voting in person. But it also accelerated implementation, taxing election staff and raising concerns about everything from denying people the opportunity to vote to diluting legitimate votes through uneven interpretation of election laws and policies among the counties. The challenge is how best to maximize voter access while ensuring the safety of voters and the security of the voting process, and there are partisan differences over how to strike the right balance.

Following Pennsylvania’s primary, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee (RNC) launched a lawsuit demanding a uniform interpretation of the state’s election code to guard against abuse and fraud, including through unattended ballot drop boxes that were used in more than a dozen counties.

“Our right to vote is one of the most important, if not the most important, right bestowed upon us,” says Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a plaintiff in the case who served with the Navy in Iraq and says he was proud to fight to protect the right of everyone to vote, regardless of political leaning. In an emailed response to questions, he says a consistent application of the law is the key to ensuring a fair and equal election. “Treating certain areas of the commonwealth differently is an inherent risk to the integrity of our important tradition of making sure every vote counts, and every vote counts equally.”

Many Democrats are also worried about every vote counting, particularly when it comes to minority voters. A lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters demands that Pennsylvania establish a standardized procedure for verifying voter signatures and to join 17 other states that allow voters whose mailed ballots are invalidated for mismatched signatures to be notified and given a chance to “cure” their ballots by verifying their identity.

The case notes that county staff untrained in handwriting analysis are often the ones to throw out ballots based on a signature mismatch, which can disproportionately affect voters who are disabled, elderly, or less educated. The suit cites a study that found that laypeople misidentify genuine signatures as inauthentic 26% of the time.

Another issue that disproportionately affected minority voters in Pennsylvania’s primary was the consolidation of polling places, driven in part by polling worker shortages during the pandemic. The two most populous counties – Philadelphia and Allegheny, which includes Pittsburgh – downsized from 2,100 polling stations to fewer than 500, leading to long lines. African Americans make up nearly half of Philadelphia’s population and nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh’s.

“I think absolutely this is intentional,” says Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters. “It’s a voter suppression tactic.”

“Voter suppression hasn’t gone away,” she adds. “Voter suppression just changes its face based on what’s going on.”

The drop box debate

Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, which is also party to the League of Women Voters suit,  
cites many previous hurdles Black voters have had to overcome – including election officials in the South asking Black voters to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, and only allowing them to vote if they guessed correctly. 

Now, amid national protests over racial injustice, a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black communities, and an unusual election season that has stirred concerns about Black voters’ voices being heard, someone asked Ms. Bush recently, “What else can Black people take? What else is America going to put on us?”

“And I said, if you look at our history, we have handled and managed all of the unfairness that has been put on our shoulders,” says Ms. Bush, whose organization is working with partners to get out the vote in Pittsburgh. “We will get through this as well.”

One option to support Black voters and others looking to avoid long lines, close contact, or mail delays is installing secure ballot drop boxes, which are bolted to the ground and routinely emptied.

“We strongly encourage counties to ... make voting as accessible as possible,” including by using drop boxes, Ms. Boockvar, Pennsylvania's secretary of state, said in an interview. “Do I have the authority to mandate that? I don’t at this time.”

So it’s up to each county to decide whether to use them, how many to deploy, where to place them, and how to monitor them and establish a chain of custody. Amber McReynolds, CEO for The National Vote at Home Institute and the former director of elections for Denver, says the best practice is to have a bipartisan team that’s specifically trained on emptying the boxes and does so on a regular schedule, putting the ballots into sealed boxes and maintaining a chain of custody.

Erie County was one of more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties to utilize the drop box option, installing one at the courthouse where there was lighting and 24-hour surveillance. Chief Clerk Doug Smith says the county was expecting about 8,000 people to vote absentee. Instead it was more than triple that, and about 5,000 ballots came via that single drop box.

Now the use of drop boxes is up in the air due to the Trump lawsuit, which has been suspended until early October pending related litigation on the state level.

The state’s election code requires that each voter deliver his or her own ballot, and the Trump lawsuit argues that unattended drop boxes contravene that provision, since it’s impossible to verify who dropped off the ballots. Local election officials also worry that the boxes could become a political target and the ballots damaged ­­– an irretrievable loss even if the boxes are under constant surveillance and the culprit is identified.

As for concerns about fraud, the number of proven instances remains extremely small and the plaintiffs in the Trump lawsuit were not able to produce any examples from this year’s primary when asked by the federal judge overseeing the case. However, the suit cited examples from the past, including a 1993 special election in Philadelphia that was closely scrutinized because it determined which party would control the state legislature. A federal judge found “massive absentee ballot fraud, deception, intimidation, harassment and forgery” on the part of the victorious Democratic candidate, who was forced to relinquish his seat to his Republican opponent. According to a front-page article in The New York Times, two of the three members of the Board of Elections – both Democrats – “testified that they were aware of the voter fraud, had intentionally failed to enforce the election law and had later tried to conceal their activities by hurriedly certifying the Democratic candidate as the winner.”

“The RNC and Trump campaign continue our fight to protect ballot security and reduce chances for fraud and administrative chaos in November by ensuring campaigns can fairly monitor the casting, collecting and counting of votes,” says Mandi Merritt, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, in an email. “All voters, regardless of political stripes, deserve to have confidence in their elections system and this lawsuit seeks to restore that integrity.”

Democrats accuse Mr. Trump of making unsubstantiated claims about the potential for widespread fraud to sow doubt about the integrity of the election, and prepare the ground for contesting the results if he doesn’t win.

“The Biden campaign will fight for every Pennsylvanian to make their voice heard this fall, and we’re making sure voters know all of their options to vote: whether it’s by dropping their ballot off at a secure dropbox, voting by mail, or safely in-person,” says Michael Feldman, Pennsylvania communications director for the Biden campaign, in an email to the Monitor.

Secretary Boockvar says in an interview that the greatest challenge leading up to November is the misinformation and disinformation around the voting process. To that end, Pennsylvania has just started a postcard campaign, informing registered voters of their right to vote by mail or in person and pointing them to VotesPA.com, the official hub for election information. In addition, a state interagency group that includes everyone from the police to the inspector general to the Department of State is working to combat false information on social media, and ensure that counties have the knowledge and resources to do so as well. Similar initiatives are in place in the cybersecurity domain.

“One of the reasons why I’m really proud and confident in Pennsylvania’s election security and preparedness for the November election is because of the strength of those collaborations,” says Secretary Boockvar.

State legislature proposes last-minute changes

In the June primary, 1.5 million Pennsylvanians cast their ballot by mail and it took two weeks to certify all the elections. In at least one race, the apparent winner on election night ended up losing. Some are concerned that could happen in the November presidential election. With far more Democrats planning to vote by mail than Republicans – 52% compared to 10%, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll – that could create a “blue shift” after polls close and mailed ballots are counted.

“In a primary, in a [state government] office, it’s an inconvenience – it’s not the end of the world,” says Dave Reed, former Republican majority leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, who now co-chairs VoteSafe PA, a cross-partisan coalition working to ensure a safe and secure election. “When you’re talking about who’s going to be the next president of the United States, we have to be thorough and prompt.”

Secretary Boockvar says she’s expecting about 3 million people to vote by mail in November. A new bill put forward by the GOP-led state Senate incorporates a number of recommendations her office made in an August report on the primary, one of which would be to facilitate quicker results by allowing local election officials to start opening mailed ballots and preparing them for scanning prior to Election Day. Current state law prohibits doing so before 7 a.m. on Election Day. 

The bill would also allow voters to request ballots earlier and “cure” their ballots in case of a signature mismatch – a practice used in 17 other states by which voters whose ballots were invalidated are notified and given a chance to verify their authenticity. 

“The overwhelming and the overriding goal with this [bill] is to ensure security of the elections, access for voters, and to ensure that we get timely results on election day or shortly after election day – that we’re not looking for weeks afterwards to know what the final results will be,” says Crystal Clark, general counsel to the Senate Republican caucus.

Such changes would ease the Election Day crunch, but it creates uncertainty right now for local election officials, by holding up the printing of ballots, poll worker training manuals, and other delays.

“We certainly recognize that there is an urgency with regard to the changes that are in Senate Bill 10,” says Ms. Clark. 

The Senate is scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 8 and Mr. Reed, the former Republican majority leader, says the bill could be wrapped up within a week if the parties stick to key needs. He’s reasonably optimistic Pennsylvania will manage to pull off the election without any major hitches. After all, it’s more of a 20th-century upgrade than a digital revolution, he says.

“This is not text-your-vote-in, this is not Snapchat; we’re using a mail system,” he says.

But perhaps beyond the legal and logistical challenges is a deeper issue of trust – in the system itself, the people administering it, and even of fellow voters.

“The challenge is going to be making sure that we as a people – we have to understand and believe that we have a greater purpose than just ourselves, and that we have to do everything we can to exuberate love and concern for our fellow human beings,” says Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania state NAACP who also serves as a pastor. “Somewhere along the lines we’re losing that. And what’s very troubling to me is that people who live in communities in the rural areas, I don’t want them to think that because I’m a Black civil rights leader, I don’t care about them, because I do.”

In more than a dozen interviews for this piece, a wide range of people across the political spectrum emphasized a common desire for a fair and secure election. And the people most well-equipped to ensure that, argues Mr. Lehman of Lycoming County, are the dedicated local election officials across the state.

“They’re probably the best asset this state has to maintain the integrity of election,” he says. “It’s not the election code or the 1s and 0s in the software, it’s having people of integrity in the positions that matter. That’s how you protect this process.”

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