These are the two big ways it will be easier to vote in Erie County this year

A new voting machine in Erie County (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. — Erie County voters can look forward to two big changes when they head to the polls for Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary election: For the first time, they’ll be casting paper ballots, and they can now take advantage of no-excuse mail in balloting.

The changes will make it easier and more convenient for voters to cast their votes, Erie County Election Supervisor Tonia Fernandez told the Capital-Star. 

“Change isn’t always bad,” Fernandez said. “It is going to take them a lot less time at the polls … It’s going to make voting easier.”

Changes to equipment include an entirely new system; Dominion. Previously, Erie County utilized ES&S voting machines. Voters are accustomed to an entirely touch-screen system. Beginning with the primaries, Erie County will be using mostly paper ballots. 

With ES&S machines, the voter placed his or her ballot on the touch screen. The piece of equipment that held the memory. The primary election on April 28 will be the first time that voters use the touch screen to print their ballot, which will then be taken to the scanner to be counted and saved.

“It’s just a little bit different,” Fernandez said. “The people who are going to be most affected are our poll workers. (For) the general public, I think it’s going to be pretty easy for them, but because the poll workers work with them … there is going to be different reporting procedures and things of that nature.” 

County officials are working to train both poll workers and the public to use the new equipment by holding demonstrations across the county. Additionally, a Dominion voting machine is at the Erie County Elections Office in downtown Erie for voters to practice using before election day. 

The Erie County Courthouse (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

Even so, changes at the state and county level come with challenges, Fernandez said. 

“The whole process is going to look a lot different for election officials,” she said. “We’re not going to have the results as quick as we have in the past because of the absentee ballots.” 

Erie County officials expect that the results will be held up by “at least a couple days.” 

With the signing of Act 77, voters now have until 8 p.m. on April 28 to submit their absentee and mail-in ballots to the Erie County Elections Office. 

In the past, absentee ballots were sent to the polls, where they would be opened and prepared for counting. “Voters or poll watchers had a chance to challenge an absentee voter or an absentee ballot at the polls, but that won’t be taking place at the polls anymore,” Fernandez continued. “That will be taking place here in the central location.”

Approximately 20,000 applications for mail-in ballots were received in the first two weeks of having the form online, said the Department of State in a Feb. 27 statement. 

“The immediate popularity of the application site shows that Pennsylvania voters have welcomed the new bipartisan voting reforms and the convenience of mail-in voting,” Gov. Wolf said in the statement.

Mail-in ballots prove popular in weeks since their debut

“Act 77 is making it easier for them to vote,” Fernandez said. “They can vote at home with no excuse now.”

The Erie County Democratic Party wrote to the county board of elections on Feb. 27 requesting additional procedures, “to encourage and make accessible absentee and walk-in voting as defined by Act 77.” 

Party leaders have proposed that the county establish satellite voting stations across the county, extend voting hours at the Erie County courthouse, and place secure lockboxes at municipal buildings.

The county agreed to place a lockbox outside the courthouse at Democratic Party Chairman Jim Wertz’s request. 

“Not only would this allow those voters without access to a local post office to submit their ballot, but it would also defray the postal costs of mailing the absentee ballot thereby nullifying the de facto poll tax placed on voters who can not vote at the polls on election day,” Wertz said.

In Erie County, there is roughly a 30 percent increase in voter turnout between the primary and general election. It’s still too early to tell if this will change with the signing of Act 77. 

The county has already received numerous absentee and mail-in ballots, Fernandez said, “but really without having an election under our belts, we really don’t know what (else) to expect.” 

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.