An ‘off-year’ election? There’s no such thing for these local officials.
Dauphin County election director Jerry Feaser shows off a new ballot sorter in the county Election Bureau in Harrisburg. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.
Angie Crouse doesn’t have a lot of time to talk.
On a recent Friday morning, the director of elections in Adams County was in the thick of preparing for the May 18 primary, when voters across Pennsylvania will weigh in on ballot questions, vote in partisan primaries, and, in some cases, fill vacant legislative seats in special elections.
These municipal primary races typically log the lowest voter turnout of any election cycle. But the reliable dip in participation brings no reprieve for Pennsylvania’s county election officials, who have to prepare for each election as though they’ll see 100 percent voter turnout.
This year, they’re also adjusting to the new rhythms of work under Act 77, the law giving all registered voters the chance to cast mail-in ballots.
This spring marks the first full year that the law has been in effect.
Now, without the pressure of a heated presidential election cycle or the early panic of the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on county election officials is becoming even more clear: they say they’re saddled with more administrative tasks and deadlines, and some have little confidence that the state legislators who write election laws will meaningfully improve their working conditions.
“There’s no down time anymore,” Crouse told the Capital-Star on Friday. “I give my all to my job and take it very seriously to [do] it the right way. It’s just become very stressful.”
Some of the stressors that county officials are facing this year aren’t new. Crouse said municipal elections are typically heavy on paperwork, as county offices process petitions that local candidates must file to get on the ballot – a task that falls more heavily on the Department of State for legislative and statewide races.
Other perennial issues, such as recruiting poll workers, have been exacerbated by disinformation about mail-in voting and legislative inaction, officials say.
Counties have long struggled to recruit enough poll workers to check in voters and show them how to use voting equipment. For years, they have appealed to the legislature to eliminate a restriction that prevents government employees from serving – something they say limits the pool of potential workers.
A swell of volunteers last year left some counties with more poll workers than they needed. But many of those workers, who get paid hourly on Election Day, say they won’t come back for the primary, leaving counties in a scramble to staff their precincts.
“Everyone was willing to throw the kitchen sink at the November election,” Lycoming County election director Forrest Lehman said. “Once it’s over, people lose interest for a couple of years. Now we don’t have enough [poll workers.]
Lehman said seasoned and inexperienced poll workers alike were turned off by hostility from voters last year. Others felt overwhelmed by new services they had to provide at polling places as a result of Act 77.
Counties handled a deluge of paperwork on Election Day last year as voters who requested mail-in ballots decided to vote in-person instead. Poll workers had to help them remit their mail-in ballots or help them vote provisionally.
‘They don’t understand the domino effect’
Election officials told the Capital-Star that they’ll celebrate any law that makes it easier for people to vote. But the rapid uptake of mail-in voting in Pennsylvania hasn’t coincided with a winding down of the state’s in-person voting operations.
“We’re basically running two elections at the same time,” Armstrong County Elections Director MaryBeth Kuznik said. “That’s daunting, even for the old timers.”
Lehman said election directors are left feeling “distracted” as they administer a new mail-in voting operation while preparing for full turnout at the polls.
The workload for in-person voting is especially demanding in a patchwork state like Pennsylvania, he said, where a strong tradition of local control has left it with more municipalities than any state besides Texas and Illinois – each one needing a fully staffed precinct on Election Day. That means more voting machines that need maintenance between elections, and more staff who need training.
Lehman was one of the first election professionals to point out that Act 77 ignited a small-scale labor crisis in Pennsylvania’s election bureaus: a third of the state’s election directors have departed their posts in the last year, taking with them decades of cumulative knowledge and professional experience.
One reason for the mass burnout? Election officials also say they can no longer count on lulls in their workflow, which previously allowed them to catch their breath and prepare for the sprint before Election Day.
The month of January is typically slow in the Lycoming County election office. But this year, “it was absolutely crazy,” said Lehman.
Thanks to a provision in Act 77, the county had to mail courtesy notices to more than 12,000 voters who opted to receive mail-in ballot applications annually. That triggered a round of confused phone calls and letters from voters who didn’t realize they’d signed up for the service when they requested ballots last year, and then a wave of cancellations that county employees had to process.
But officials also highlighted another theme: a disconnect between the people who write election laws and the people who put them into practice.
State lawmakers have pledged to amend Act 77 this year. Standing committees and special commissions in the House and Senate have held a series of fact-finding hearings to listen to election experts, county officials and advocates.
Republicans are pushing for new requirements for voters to show ID at the polls – something Gov. Tom Wolf says he will veto.
But election directors say their wish list is simple: They want more time before an election to process mail-in ballots, and a more realistic deadline for voters to ask to receive their ballots through the mail.
That wish list has been consistent for a year. But after watching election law reforms become political footballs last year, county officials don’t have high confidence in the legislators who write the rules of their work.
“[Lawmakers] are geniuses when it comes to running campaigns,” Feaser said. “But when it comes to running an election? They don’t necessarily understand the domino effect that they’ll trigger with one seemingly insignificant change.”
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