MAP: Despite poll closings nationwide, Pa. polling locations hold steady in 2020

Signs outside the only polling place in New Alexandria, Pa., Westmoreland County (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Pennsylvania retained roughly the same amount of general election polling locations over an eight-year period despite implementing several other changes during an especially tumultuous election, a Capital-Star analysis has found. 

One of the most hotly contested battleground states this election cycle, Pennsylvania has seen a lot of changes to its elections in 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The state this year implemented the greatest set of changes to its general election procedures since 1937, allowing voters to request mail-in ballots without providing a reason and slashing the straight-party ticket voting choice that enables voters to select every candidate from a particular party with a single choice.

Despite these changes, one aspect of voting has remained relatively consistent: the number of locations has not seen a considerable change, compared to the 2012 general election, the Capital-Star analysis found. Polling locations saw a roughly two percent increase from the 2012 general election to the 2020 general election. 

These figures indicate Pennsylvania has bucked national trends. 

More than  21,000 Election Day polling locations closed down for the 2020 general election all over the country, a roughly 20 percent decrease from 2016 with states like Texas and Georgia facing much deeper cuts, VICE News reported. 

This nationwide trend is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused unprecedented poll worker shortages and the need for polling locations to be large enough to abide by social distancing protocols. 

Pennsylvania did face those challenges during the June 2020 primary election, when several counties, including Philadelphia, Montgomery, Allegheny, Luzerne, and Delaware counties, cut the number of in-person polling places by more than 50 percent, WHYY-FM reported in May.

Despite these earlier challenges, there are approximately 75 more polling locations open in Pennsylvania during Election Day on Nov. 3 than there were during the 2016 general election, when counties operated 9,160 polling places statewide, according to Department of State data collected by the Capital-Star and the Center for Public Integrity. 

There are more than  9 million registered voters statewide, according to the Department of State. 

The decision by counties to increase the number of polling places follows the advice of public health officials and voting rights advocates, who said reducing polls during the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to overcrowding and voter confusion.

VOTE COUNT 2020: Continuous coverage from the Pennsylvania Capital-Star

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, election officials should “maintain or increase the total number of polling places available to the public on Election Day to improve the ability to social distance” and avoid assigning more voters to polling locations. 

Last-minute closings can result in confusion, long lines and waiting times at locations, and various other logistical challenges for voters who may not have access to polling places, leading to potential disenfranchisement. 

“Today’s election in the commonwealth went remarkably smoothly,” Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a press conference Tuesday night. “We have no major or widespread events to report.”

Counties such as  Adams, Allegheny, Butler, Lebanon, Luzerne, Montgomery, Northampton, and Philadelphia counties have seen some of the biggest upticks in their number of polling locations since the 2016 general election. Each one added five or more precincts from 2016 to 2020, our analysis found.

Philadelphia operated more polling places than any other county in both 2016 and 2020. More than 1.1 million Philadelphians registered to vote by the Oct. 19 deadline, according to statistics from the Department of State –  a 36-year high. 

And though Philadelphia cut 77 percent of its polling places in the June 2020 primary as compared to the number of locations during the 2018 primary, the number of polling locations it operated for the general election increased by around 1 percent from 2018 to 2020. 

Similarly, the number of primary election polling locations in Allegheny County fell from 1,323 to just 211 in 2020. But the county reversed those cuts for the general election, adding ten more polling locations in 2020 to the 1,322 precincts it had in the 2018 general election. 

The polls have closed in Pa.: Here’s what happens next.

Franklin County, in central Pennsylvania,  continued to have the lowest number of polling locations, just 10 compared to more than 1,700 locations in Philadelphia during this election. There are roughly 110,000 registered voters in the county. 

Rjaa Ahmed is a Hearken Election SOS Fellow who is helping the Capital-Star cover the 2020 election. Follow her on Twitter @rjaaaaaaaaaaa.