Decision 2020

Here's How Pa. Will Get All the Mail-in Ballots Counted in November

Millions of mail-in ballots, drop boxes for voters to avoid postal delays, and new vote-counting machines are ways county officials across Pennsylvania are gearing up for a presidential election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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For four and a half hours, the local election board for Delaware County, Pennsylvania, sat on a Zoom call listening to 800 letters of support for mail-in ballot drop boxes.

They then approved by a vote of 2-1 the placement of 50 drop boxes throughout the county ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Drop boxes, which President Donald Trump's re-election campaign sued to have banned in Pennsylvania, are among numerous efforts being undertaken to handle an unprecedented election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Election officials in counties across southeastern Pennsylvania are taking many other steps to ensure that all the ballots, mail-in and in-person, are counted in a timely manner come November.

Those steps include increasing staff at election board offices, new technology to count mail-in ballots faster, and even more drop boxes for mail-in ballots across the region, according to county officials in charge of elections. Lessons learned from the primary in June just weeks after the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pennsylvania will also be invaluable to the November presidential election.

At the state level, lawmakers are weighing proposals to move up the deadline for applying for a mail-in ballot. Some like Gov. Tom Wolf believe the current deadline of seven days before the election does not provide enough time to receive a ballot and mail it back by Election Day. Wolf and some local election officials are also asking the legislature to allow mail-in ballot counting to begin before Election Day to help speed up the tallying process.

Pennsylvania lawmakers will hold hearings next week on legislation that could change the timing and way ballots in the Nov. 3 presidential election are received and counted, NBC10 political reporter Lauren Mayk found.

For in-person voting, county election officials across the region are vowing to have more polling places open in the fall compared to the primary. In Philadelphia, fewer than 200 polling places opened in June, compared to a normal election when there are 830 operating. County Commissioner Al Schmidt told NBC10 that he expected "there will be a helluva lot more" polling places open in November.

Philadelphia will also use employees from other city departments to aid in the November election. Schmidt's fellow City Commissioner, Lisa Deeley, said the upcoming election is essentially "two elections, one in-person and one mail-in."

County election boards are the crucial cog in the process of counting votes in Pennsylvania. Some, like Delaware County's, are appointed by elected county officials. Others, like Philadelphia's, are made up of elected commissioners.

In Montgomery County, the election board chairman, Kenneth Lawrence Jr., is also a county commissioner.

Lawrence said one of the biggest steps taken to ensure a smooth presidential election is the hiring of an elections official whose job is to oversee mail-in ballots.

"We will be much better prepared than we were in the spring," Lawrence said. "We have spent over $1 million on technology to faster count the ballots. That includes ballot extraction devices and high-density scanners. ... We now have someone focusing primarily on the mail-in ballots and hired six more clerks."

Montgomery County has already received 140,000 requests for mail-in ballots in the November election, Lawrence said. The final number of mail-in votes cast later this year could potentially double the 126,000 votes cast via mail in the primary. Mail-in ballot counting takes time because it requires a clerk to scan and open each outer envelope, followed by an inner "secrecy" envelope, before finally scanning in the ballot itself.

Montgomery County had five drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots at locations throughout the county in the primary and Lawrence said he expects a similar number. In addition to drop boxes, Lawrence said the county hopes to open as many of the 352 standard polling places as possible in November. In the primary, only 152 were open.

Philadelphia also will have drop boxes again, but the exact number is not yet set, a source told NBC10 in mid-August.

The 50 drop boxes in Delaware County approved by the election board on Aug. 20 are likely to be placed at municipal buildings of each of the county's 49 municipalities as well as one at the county courthouse in Media.

Many of the residents who provided public comments to the election board at their five-plus-hour meeting cited concerns with the U.S. Postal Service cuts for the need for mail-in ballot drop boxes.

A union leader for Philadelphia postal service workers said machines have been dismantled, and NBC10 investigative reporter Mitch Blacher obtained photos of the dismantling. Here is an update on the state of the Post Office.

The use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania was the subject of a lawsuit filed by Trump's re-election campaign, but a judge ruled that the federal court would allow state courts to determine their legality. A lawyer for the Pennsylvania Department of State issued an order to counties permitting the use of drop boxes.

Still, they remain a contentious issue. Delaware County Elections Commissioner James J. Byrne Jr. voted against the use of drop boxes after arguing that he is not satisfied with the state's legal order or his own county's election preparations.

"The guidelines ... call for a plan to be made out and a plan to show where these drop boxes are going be, how we came to this spot, what the security plans are, why we picked one neighborhood or one place in lieu of another," he said. "And we have to submit that plan to the DOS for their approval. We’re not there."

His two colleagues on the board argued that the county has still two months to go before the election, and they expressed confidence that it is enough time to get ready.

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