County officials facing primary election uncertainties tell Senate panel they know one thing: It could take several days to tally results

Poll workers in Wisconsin donned protective masks for the state's April 7 primary election. Photo by Melanie Conklin via Wisconsin Examiner.

Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary election will be the first in the state’s history where all registered voters will have the right to cast ballots by mail.

But it’s also the first presidential nominating contest to take place in the midst of a pandemic. Together, those two factors are poised to create giant — and expensive — logistical nightmares for county election officials. 

County election offices across the state are buckling under historically high demand for mail-in ballots as they scramble to prepare polling places to safely accommodate voters on June 2, officials told a state Senate panel Thursday. 

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented conditions for both mail-in and in-person voting, election officials seem certain of one thing: that Pennsylvanians may not see complete results of the primary races on election night.

“We’re not going to report [mail-in] results until several days after the election, when we know for sure we’ve got good numbers,” Lawrence County Election Commissioner Ed Allison told members of the Senate State Government Committee, which hosted a virtual hearing on election preparedness on Thursday. 

More than 880,000 Pennsylvanians have already applied to vote by mail in the primary election — an eight-fold increase from the 2016 presidential primary election, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Thursday.

Pennsylvania lawmakers expanded vote-by-mail access in October, as part of an omnibus reform to the state’s dated election code. The new demand for mail-in ballots was straining county offices even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. 

Each ballot must be scanned and verified by a trained election worker. After county officials said were on track to burn through their IT and overtime budgets, state lawmakers tweaked parts of Pennsylvania’s election code this spring to give them more time to process ballots before polling places close.

But once Gov. Tom Wolf put Pennsylvania under a statewide stay-at-home order this spring, the administration touted vote-by-mail as a way to cast a ballot without leaving quarantine.

That led to a new deluge of mail-in ballot requests, and an even greater glut of paper for county election officials to process. 

“Counties were not built for this,” Jeff Greenburg, an election commissioner in Mercer County, said. “There are not enough people or hours in the day to overcome the bottleneck.” 

More ballots could be on the way, since voters have until May 26 to apply to vote by mail.

Officials in Pennsylvania agree there must be some form of in-person voting on June 2 to accommodate voters with disabilities or those who don’t have a fixed address to receive mail.

But that means that counties are also facing the prospect of training new election workers ahead of the primary contest. Election officials said Thursday that many polling place workers are elderly, and may bow out for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Officials will also have to outfit their workers with protective gear, cleaning supplies, and guidelines to enforce social distancing in polling places.

Given the potential challenges of in-person voting in June, some election officials have called on the state to let counties to send paper ballots to every registered voter in Pennsylvania.

Greenburg said that may be the only way for Pennsylvania to avoid problems that plagued recent elections in other states.

Even after Ohio delayed its primary election until April 28, some voters reportedly did not receive mail-in ballots in time for the election. In Wisconsin, dozens of poll workers have tested positive for COVID-19 since 400,000 voters turned out to the polls in-person on April 7. 

However, mailing ballots to all Pennsylvania voters would bring a new set of costs. Counties would be on the hook for printing, packaging and processing millions of ballots, and would have to cover for shipping.

Republican senators on the State Government committee also said Thursday that mail-in voting could invite fraud or undermine the credibility of the election. 

But Paul Rosenzweig, an election security expert at the conservative-leaning think tank, the R-Street Institute, said that there’s little evidence to support those concerns. 

“There is no such thing as a perfect election system … but vote-by-mail fraud is painfully small, it’s virtually non-existent,” Rosenzweig told journalists on a conference call Thursday, the day his organization put out a report, coauthored by University of Pittsburgh researchers and other election security experts, on safeguarding voting during the pandemic.

That report estimates that it could cost anywhere from $70 million to $90 million dollars to secure Pennsylvania’s elections in 2020. Much of that cost will be borne by counties.

So far, the state has received just over $14 million in election security grants as part of a Congressional stimulus package.