Pennsylvanians prepare for general election amid pandemic and new voting rules – Updated

By Cecilia Markley

The Nov. 3 general election is less than four weeks away, and Pennsylvania is considered one of the most essential swing states in determining the presidency. But the COVID-19 pandemic hit just as the state was preparing for the primary, and for the past seven months has drastically altered the lives of Pennsylvanians statewide, including how they think about voting.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of extending the deadline to accept absentee ballots and allow mail-in ballot drop boxes in mid-September, a decision that will make voting by mail easier for Pennsylvanians. In that same ruling, the Court said mail-in ballots must be placed inside a blank envelope, called a secrecy envelope, which then goes inside the standard envelope with address and return address. Ballots not enclosed inside the secrecy envelope are referred to as naked ballots and will not be counted.

Additionally, the General Assembly and Pennsylvania Department of State have addressed how they plan on protecting voters from COVID-19 during the election and ensuring everyone’s vote counts. The General Assembly passed 2020 Act 12, which was signed by Governor Wolf on March 27, to address how to keep polling places safe during the pandemic. Some of the provisions included consolidating polling places and providing additional materials and instructions to poll workers.

The Department of State released further information about election operations during the pandemic. Some of the information given by the Department of State laid out plans for increased funding and supplies to polling locations to keep poll workers and voters safe, including providing personal protective equipment.

These rulings and announcements pose new obstacles and new advantages for voters going into the general election. In light of all of this, voters, activists and elected officials statewide are thinking about and preparing for the upcoming election.

Eileen Olmsted of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania discussed how The League views expanding access to mail-in voting as a positive. Olmsted referenced an election reform bill signed by Governor Tom Wolf last October that expanded access to mail-in voting and extended the deadline to register to vote.

“We are very lucky in Pennsylvania in particular because [the Pennsylvania government], with the League’s lobbying and urging, last fall, passed a new law about voting, which actually allowed for mail-in voting for anybody,” Olmsted said in a phone interview. “Before that, mail-in voting was restricted to people who have to have an excuse, and they have to sign what amounted to a legal piece of paper saying they swore that they would not be able to go to the polls.”

Olmsted is the Director of Communications of The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to educate voters about how to vote and provide information on specific candidates and their positions on the issues. She also discussed The League’s stances on the recent decisions made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“We’re also very happy that recently the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has ruled that counties can install secure drop boxes for people to put their ballots in leading up to the Election Day,” Olmsted said. “Also, that they have slightly loosened the rules whereupon people who mail in their ballots a week before the election, as long as it’s postmarked by Election Day, it will be counted.”

Andy Hoover of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said in a Zoom interview that the ACLU of Pennsylvania is a nonpartisan organization that believes that “every eligible voter should have the ability to vote with as few barriers as possible.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania supported the law passed last year expanding mail-in voting and supported the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to install drop boxes and extend the mail-in ballot deadline by three days as long as ballots were postmarked by Nov. 3, although it was not directly involved in that lawsuit, according to Hoover.

“That lawsuit was not our lawsuit. The state Democratic party sued the Commonwealth to get clarification on a number of issues, but we filed an amicus brief,” Hoover said. “We were happy to see that the state Supreme Court recognized that the deadline for receiving ballots should be extended.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania disagreed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that secrecy envelopes are required for mail-in ballots, according to Hoover, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s director of communications.

“On the naked ballots, we took the decision opposite of where the Court landed,” Hoover said. “We think they were wrong in that decision, that there could be a significant level of disenfranchisement if people submit their ballots without the secrecy envelope.”

Hoover pointed to the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s website for more information on naked ballots, drop boxes and mail-in voting in general.

Mike Urick talked about his experiences as a local inspector of election in southwestern Pennsylvania. Urick explained in a Zoom interview that an inspector of election is an elected official who judges the election and works at the polls on Election Day.

Urick said that he wrote himself in for the position in 2017 not actually expecting to win, but no one else was running, so he was elected by one vote. He has maintained his role since being elected and works at the polls on Election Day. He explained how his local polling location is preparing for the election.

“I’m nervous about the germs, but I think we’re taking the necessary precautions,” Urick said. “In terms of who actually gets out and votes, I’m not sure. I’m interested to see whether there’s going to be more mail-in voting or not, and if that’s going to depend on the location. I think location could be dependent on how high the COVID numbers are in the area and also who is favored to win in a particular area.”

Urick said he hoped Pennsylvanians would get out and vote in the upcoming elections.

“I wish that we could see more people come out to vote. I think that politics has been at the forefront of people’s minds over the past couple years, increasingly,” Urick said. “As you’re always told, every vote counts. I don’t know if I always believed that, until I voted myself in and won by one vote.”

Vallie Edenbo from Boiling Springs, outside of Harrisburg, said in a Zoom interview that she isn’t sure if she will vote by mail or in person in the upcoming election. Edenbo, a grant project advisor, also discussed how worried she is as the election approaches that it is not safe.

“My faith is kind of eroding recently, very recently, as the election gets closer,” Edenbo said. “I think that there are compounding circumstances: the pandemic, concerns about foreign interference. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a matter of digital versus mail versus hard copy ballots. I don’t think that any one of those is any safer than the other, but I feel like we’re very vulnerable right now to both external threats to democracy and to internal corruption.”

Jeff Alexander, a graduate student from Monroeville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, said in a Zoom interview that he requested a mail-in ballot for the June primary. Alexander said that the ballot never arrived, so he was unable to vote in the primary. This made him wary to vote by mail again, so he said he will vote in person in November.

“It was strange and has made me not want to request a ballot, especially since my polling place is over there,” Alexander said, tilting his screen and pointing out the window to the building next to his house. “I’m just going to walk down there on Nov. 3 and do it.”

Alexander also talked about his many concerns with the upcoming election.

“I do think with coronavirus, you don’t know what’s going to happen with that, and what the turnout is going to look like, and if the ballots that are mailed in are going to be there on time,” Alexander said. “With the whole naked ballot thing that was reported on in Pennsylvania, how many ballots are going to get thrown out because they’re not in a proper envelope? I’m worried about that stuff, I guess.”

Michelle Costanzo from Northampton, in eastern Pennsylvania, said she plans to vote in person on Election Day because she wants to volunteer as a poll worker, and she likes going to the polls and seeing people she knows.

“When you go to the polling place, everyone recognizes that this is your right,” Costanzo said in a Zoom interview. “This is something that is important to democracy.”

Costanzo, who is a high school teacher, said she is worried about violence either at polling places on Election Day or by supporters of candidates after the results of the election are announced.

“I’m worried about the possibility of violence coming out of this,” Costanzo said. “I’m hoping that violence does not occur in large numbers, and I’m hoping that it’s not occurring at polling places. I’m actually more worried about attempts to sort of prevent people from voting in some way or another.”

Costanzo said that nonetheless, she is hopeful looking forward and has confidence in mail-in voting and the ability of the United States to handle it properly.

“I think we can come through this,” Costanzo said. “I think as a nation, those democratic principles are going to win out. We’re just in a really bad time for it right now. COVID makes it so much harder for people to see, but I also believe that this whole situation is forcing us to reevaluate how we do things in this country in general, and I think voting is one of those areas.”

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