Activists, W.Pa. lawmakers call on Allegheny Co. officials to increase access to the ballot box

Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

PITTSBURGH — A group of voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers from Pittsburgh called on Allegheny County officials Wednesday to immediately move on measures designed to increase access to the ballot box, including ones that have been adopted by other counties in Pennsylvania.

“It is the responsibility of our election officials to ensure fair access to the ballot,” said Aerion Abney, Pennsylvania director of special projects at the voting rights organization All Voting is Local, and a failed challenger to state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, in the June primary.

“We’re asking the Allegheny County Board of Elections to make a comprehensive plan to ensure access to safe voting for this November’s general election that would better protect public health and ensure every voter can exercise their fundamental freedom,” especially for frontline workers and Black and Brown voters, he said.

Abney and others cited the Philadelphia area, where election officials in the city and neighboring Montgomery and Delaware Counties have approved plans for additional elections office locations, 17 in Philadelphia alone, and other services, like drop-boxes for mail-in ballots. Bucks County officials have also indicated plans for drop-boxes.

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“The fact remains that we are behind other counties across the state, and the election is not getting further away, it’s getting closer,” said Sam Williamson, Western Pennsylvania area director at the service workers union 32BJ SEIU, who also called the county to provide poll workers hazard pay. “And so we think now is the time to act, now it’s time to make sure that we’re publishing a plan that establishes as many election offices and drop-box locations as possible.”

Election officials across the commonwealth are preparing for their first general election under new rules signed into law last year by Gov. Tom Wolf. The law effectively introduced early voting to Pennsylvania through mail-in ballots. Previously, voters needed to qualify for an absentee ballot in order to avoid the polls on Election Day.

The demand for mail-in ballots is high. Allegheny County election officials have already processed 204,000 mail-in and absentee ballot applications to date, according to Allegheny County’s deputy manager of the elections division, Chet Harhut.

In the Wednesday press conference, lawmakers and advocates argued that doubts about the postal service, largely propagated by President Donald Trump, and a growing distrust in government among Americans meant that voting access needed to be as available as possible.

“There are things that are going on around the state that are of major concern to me,” state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said. “So other states are stepping up and doing the drop-boxes, the satellite offices and the like, and we need to replicate that as well.”

Trump, who will hold a rally in nearby Latrobe, Westmoreland County, on Thursday, has continued his attacks on mail-in voting and sowing doubt on whether the elections will be free and fair.

His campaign sued Pennsylvania elections officials in federal court, claiming that drop-boxes and other practices are susceptible to fraud. Other state cases over the commonwealth’s election procedures have made it to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

Costa gave credit to Allegheny County’s election officials for reporting vote totals quickly for the June primary. But voting rights advocates criticized the county for its primary performance, when officials got special permission from the state to consolidate 90 percent of its usual number of locations, more than the 60% allowed in the Act 12 emergency relief bill passed in Harrisburg earlier this year.

At-Large Allegheny County Council Member Bethany Hallam cited in the press conference complaints from constituents in June, who told her they did not receive mail-in ballots in time for the primary election. She also criticized county officials’ claims that they may be forced to reduce the number of polling locations again if they can’t recruit and train enough poll workers in time.

“So as of now, there will be all of the polling locations, but again, that is contingent upon the number of poll workers who are signed up and able to be trained in the time prior to Nov. 3,” Hallam said.

In an emailed statement, Harhut said the county’s election staff was working to set up new processes, verify polling places and securing enough poll workers for Nov. 3, and that the elections division has confirmed more than 6,500 poll workers. That’s 95 percent of the personnel needed to work the county’s 1,300 planned voting locations, he said.

“We are going through this thoughtful, detailed and careful process because we want to ensure that every single vote cast is counted,” Harhut said. “The number one priority in these efforts is the integrity of the election system. We don’t want anything done by this division to result in any vote being challenged or not counted. We hope that voters and advocacy organizations from across the county share that goal.”

While Harhut did not directly address the proposed measures like drop-boxes, he said that the county’s Board of Elections next meeting will be in a couple weeks. “Once our due diligence is complete, plans will be provided to the Board of Elections,” he said. “As noted on the division’s website, the date of the next meeting is Thursday, Sept. 17 at 2 p.m.”

Correspondent Tom Lisi covers western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @TommyLisi.