Allegheny County is dramatically reducing its polling places over COVID-19 safety concerns

Protesters at a “Promote the Vote Car-A-Van” on May 18. (Photo via The Pittsburgh Current)

By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell

PITTSBURGH — Randall Taylor hopes for a day when voting will be as easy as grocery shopping. For the time being, though, he’s settled for trying to ensure that Pittsburgh’s black residents understand their different voting options for the upcoming Primary Election on June 2. This means participating in a collaborative effort with the Black Political Empowerment Project, Pittsburgh’s chapter of the NAACP, and the Pittsburgh Women’s March going from neighborhood to neighborhood in a car-a-van answering questions and encouraging mail-in ballots.

“The most important thing is we’re trying to let people know your polling place is going to be closed,” Taylor explained. “They’re moving different polling places to things like municipal buildings where they weren’t before, most likely we can confidently say your polling place will be closed on election day and that’s the message we’re trying to get out to people.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. and large gatherings were discouraged as a matter of public health Pennsylvania pushed its scheduled April 28 election back to June. In a hotly debated move, members of the Allegheny County Board of Elections have stated is designed to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, instead of the usual 1,323 polling places that would be open on any given election day in June there will be only 211.

However, advocates such as Taylor fear that there’s a great deal of confusion over how mail-in voting works as this is the first time it’s ever been employed in Pennsylvania. More than that pointing out that not everyone has consistent social media access, with so much of the information posted online this could create digital disadvantage for black, brown and lower income residents who won’t have access to accurate information.

“Any time information is dependent on social media, there’s going to be a lot of people who don’t have regular access to a computer or wifi who will be disproportionately affected,” Taylor explained.

Taylor pointed to Pittsburgh Public Schools hiccups in distance learning as an example.

In Taylor’s outreach, he says he’s come across residents who were aware that mail-in ballots were an option, however were confused about the procedures and the timelines. Additionally, he expressed concern over residents who might not receive their ballots in enough time. While many have expressed concern that the 211 polling places as opposed to the usual 13,323 would unjustly disenfranchise voters, Taylor would rather all polling places be closed.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” Taylor stated. “I don’t think we should be encouraging people to work for 13 hours in that situation. We know a lot of campaign workers are seniors and I really don’t think we should put anybody in harm’s way. I’m in agreement about reducing polling places, I’m just concerned about any polling place that will be open.”

Pennsylvania Primary 2020: Your guide to the June 2 presidential and statewide elections

Taylor’s not alone in his trepidation. County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam has been vocal about her disapproval of the polling place reduction plan.

As the sole no vote on the Elections Commission which consists of herself, fellow at-large County Councilman Sam DeMarco, and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Hallam told the Pittsburgh Current that she was frustrated with the plan because she finds it is “inequitable.” By applying a, “one size fits all” solution to the county’s many municipalities, Hallam said, the county had disenfranchised voters and placed poll workers at risk.

“Instead of doing what other cities and counties throughout Pennsylvania have done which is [to] utilize data to develop a polling place consolidation plan, Allegheny County decided to take the easy way out,” Hallam remarked.

As of May 19, the county elections office reports it’s received 225,000 mail-in ballot applications. However as of mid-May about 42,000 ballots have been returned, a return rate of less than 19 percent. That’s a number that worries Hallam because of the few number of polling places open on election day. The exasperated county councilor calls it a “fucking drop in the bucket.”

During the 2016 primary, voter turnout was 41 percent. That means a lot of ballots need to be returned and even more need to show up at the dramatically reduced number of polling places.

The problem as Hallam sees it is that different municipalities would need a larger number of polling places based on how many registered voters in the area.

In Allegheny County, with municipalities such as Penn Hills with roughly 30,000 registered voters and others like Wall with potentially a few hundred it’s unreasonable, Hallam said, to give both areas only one polling place when more voters suggest a need for more.

“Some municipalities are tiny,” Hallam observed. “West View is one square-mile in total area; Penn Hills is fifty miles in total area so when you consolidate to one polling location you have folks who are potentially driving up to a half hour each way just to cast their ballot on Election Day.”

Pennsylvania Primary 2020: Your guide to the June 2 presidential and statewide elections

In October 2019, Act 77, a law that allowed for improvements to the commonwealth’s election process for the first time in decades was enacted. It allows for mail-in ballots, additional time to register, and more time to return absentee ballots.

Months later, Act 12 granted counties emergency relief to consolidate polling places due to the pandemic for the 2020 primary election only.

However, Hallam points out that Act 12 only allows for a 60 percent consolidation, whereas the county has opted to consolidate 90 percent of polling places with the permission of the department of state. Among many things, Hallam would’ve preferred a less-sizable consolidation to protect both voters and poll workers.

“Doing 60 percent, we could’ve staffed, we could’ve developed a better plan to make sure polling places were accessible and we just didn’t do that and I think that’s why I’m just frustrated now,” she said.

Hallam added that no matter how hard the county pushed mail-in voting, there would still be voters who trusted in person ballots more. Therefore making only one polling place available, she said, makes voting inaccessible.

Furthermore, Hallam expressed doubt that the plan in place will protect poll workers.

“We can act like this consolidation plan was to protect public health,” Hallam said. “In reality what’s going to happen is that the poll workers that we do have working the polls on election day are now exposed to potentially thousands more voters than they would have normally been exposed to.”

Hallam also says she believes the board was misled about how many poll workers declined to serve. She recalls receiving dozens of phone calls from poll workers who’d said they were never contacted.

“There was research done,” she said. “There was no data compiled to develop this polling-place consolidation plan, the poll workers were not contacted like the country claimed they were. I can give you dozens of poll workers that can attest to that.”

Due to the “overwhelming” of the elections division with requests for mail-in ballots, Hallam feared the county was opening itself up to a lawsuit for individuals who wouldn’t be able to vote on election day.

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

DeMarco holds a different view. Along with Fitzgerald, he supported the consolidation on the grounds that there weren’t enough poll workers to safely and adequately staff the polls.

“My job is to ensure that we provide people with the ability to safely and securely cast their vote,” DeMarco explained. “And we were told that there weren’t enough people willing to work because of the concern over Covid-19 pandemic to be able to adequately staff the normal 1,323 polls.”

DeMarco recalled that back in April he wanted to survey poll workers to gauge how many people were willing to work. Ultimately it didn’t happen, but DeMarco contends that with the information provided the goal was to protect public health.

“Neither Councilor Hallam nor myself saw the information, but we were told the same thing,” DeMarco said. “I voted the way I did because if I vote no and she [Hallam] votes no we still have 13023 polls and no way to take in staff.”

Additionally, DeMarco argues that on the topic of disenfranchisement by sending out mail-in voter applications to all eligible county voters was proof that the consolidation plan didn’t unfairly target or disenfranchise voters.

“We’re only trying to make the process better, not trying to hinder it for anybody,” DeMarco insisted.  “What happens is you’ve got 13,023 polls that require about 5500 poll workers. If you’ve got a bunch of people calling up and saying they’re afraid to work it’s one thing to say you can’t close it down, but who’s going to work?”

DeMarco added that he understood the consolidation procedures were inconvenient and that he himself at first believed there’d be 300 to 400 polling places available, but with the information he was presented with, he voted the best way he could.

Still, doubts linger about what the end result will be. Even among Republicans there’s concern that the polling place reduction plan amounts to voter suppression. On May 22, members of the Allegheny County Republican House Delegation co-authored a letter demanding that the Primary Day Election plan be abandoned.

Within the letter, the officials alleged that the consolidation plan violated the law due to the county not providing evidence to justify the reduction in polling places and disenfranchised voters.

Also, the Republican officials, who included state House Mike Turzai, as well as  Reps. Natalie Mihalek, Jason Ortitay, Bob Brooks, Lori Mizgorski, and Mike Puskaric stated that the county failed to get the appropriate public input prior to sending its plan to the Department of State.

“The decision to reduce the number of polling locations on the primary date is an affront to good faith decision making in a democracy and to rational and fair public policy,” the letter said. “Secretary Boockvar, your approval of Allegheny County’s ill-conceived plan was not just unjustified, it threatens the public health, promotes voter disen$anchisement, and will result in severe voter confusion that undermines the core of our Republic – free and fair elections.”

The letter went on to outline grievances with the plan that included that the county didn’t provide data to support the merits of the plan, the plan itself possibly creates “volatile situations” for voters, and called on the county to return to 1,323 polling places or 530 at the least.

“Given these facts, we insist that the Department revise its approval of Allegheny County’s application and immediately require the County to return to the standard 1,323 polling places,” the letter said. “At a minimum, the County must be required to allow for at least 530 polling locations in 530 separate buildings based on an equitable pro rata basis.”

In response to the letter, County Solicitor Andrew Szefi and Elections Division Manager David Voye issued a statement insisting that the county had acted within the bounds of Act 12 and its guidelines and sought only to preserve public health.

“The steps taken by Allegheny County, its Elections Division and the Board of Elections neither disenfranchise voters nor endanger public health,” Voye said in the release. “These steps, indeed, are intended to encourage the greatest number of voters to participate in the June 2 Primary Election while also protecting public health.”

But advocates like Randall Taylor just aren’t so sure.

“Everything is different now, I just think that we all have to adjust to this period but we all have to stay safe,” Taylor said. “A vote is going to take place, people are going to be elected. We just have to make sure as many people as possible have the chance to make their vote heard.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.