Some county and state officials are warning that a flood of mailed-in ballots in Pennsylvania -- fueled by fears of in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic -- will create a number of problems in Tuesday’s primary election that must be fixed before they cause a disaster in this battleground state in November’s presidential election.
For one, they are warning that there will be no way to produce timely election results in November unless the law changes to allow counties to process mailed-in ballots before Election Day. Even in Tuesday's relatively low-turnout primary election, election-night results might be unlikely in closely contested races, they say.
“No one wants to be in the situation where the U.S. presidential race is coming down to Pennsylvania and there is a week or two delay on us in delivering a victor," said state Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia.
Boyle plans to sponsor legislation to give counties more time to process the ballots, starting the Saturday before the election.
Boyle, with support from county election directors, pushed for a similar change in March when lawmakers voted to delay the primary election by five weeks to June 2. However, it lacked support from Republicans who control the House and Senate majorities.
Of more immediate concern is the question of whether voters can mail their ballots back to county election offices in time to be counted in Tuesday's primary election. The deadline in state law is 8 p.m. on election night. But some ballots are still in the mail to voters, and it could take five days to a week for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver the returned ballots to county election officials.
Montgomery County planned to ask the state Supreme Court for an emergency order granting more time for ballots to arrive and be counted, a county commissioner, Ken Lawrence, said. So far, other efforts to that effect in lower courts have failed.
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In the meantime, some counties are working to provide alternatives — such as posting drop boxes in strategic locations — to voters who have not mailed in their ballots yet.
More than 1.8 million voters have requested a mail-in or absentee ballot, according to state officials. The deadline to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot was two days ago, but a final figure of application was still being assembled.
Gov. Tom Wolf's top elections official, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, said her estimate for the number of applications had been "blown out of the water” and that she at least hoped to work with lawmakers to change the law before the November election.
More than 3.2 million people cast ballots in the 2016 primary election when the presidential nominations were still contested. This year, the nominations are uncontested, lowering expectations for turnout.
Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said county election directors had been unified in urging state lawmakers to let them process mailed-in ballots before election day, even before the pandemic hit.
“We need to adjust our expectations that it’s going to be possible to have final results in the same manner that we’ve become accustomed to, unless we change the law for the general and future elections,” Schaefer said.
Tuesday is the first election in Pennsylvania in which the option of no-excuse mail-in ballots are available to voters following a sweeping election reform law signed in October by Wolf.