Voting rights’ advocates warn of bumpy fall unless Pa. addresses primary day glitches

(Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Voting in this November’s general election could be disastrous if the state does not take measures to reform the model used for the primary election, a voter watchdog coalition warned Wednesday.

In a conference call with journalists, members of the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition, a group of organizations that advocate for voters’ rights, said the COVID-19 pandemic, protests, and consolidated polling places made it significantly more difficult for people to vote. 

Many voters had to walk past National Guard troops in order to get to their polling place, and many people did not know where their new polling place was since precincts were consolidated.

“Reasonable people did not vote yesterday, because on top of a pandemic, they were witnessing simultaneous state-sanctioned violence across the country, including within our Commonwealth,” Erin Kramer, the executive director of One Pennsylvania, a multi-issue organization based on civic engagement, said. 

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Some members of the coalition seemed to disagree with a statement Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar issued Tuesday night contending that the election process ran smoothly given the circumstances, and that 1.8 million voters requested mail-in or absentee ballot forms.

“I think we would say that there was nothing typical about yesterday’s election,” Kramer said.

Kramer said based on surveys people on the ground took yesterday, voting was accessible if you had “laser focus” on what it took to get to the polls. She said in Philadelphia, Allegheny, and Delaware counties, almost half of the voters at consolidated polling locations were asked for ID, and poll watchers saw many voters get turned away for not having proper identification.

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Kramer said some people were waiting in line to vote for more than 30 minutes, which is unusual in a primary election, and said this would be even worse on a general Election Day.

The coalition is advocating for the implementation of voting centers, which would be well-resourced voting locations with a large staff in a facility central to the community, so people can clearly understand where they need to go to vote. People would be able to vote at any center in their county.

A large portion of voters calling helplines on Tuesday were trying to locate their new polling place, according to members of the coalition and a statement from the Department of State. 

“If you imagine the idea of multiple locations that then any voter in the county can access, you have a lot less of the confusion around assigning people to a particular consolidated polling place based on their geography,” Ray Murphy, the state coordinator of the advocacy group Keystone Votes, said.

Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said she heard reports of poll workers not properly trained on how to interact with voters, and that some poll workers were reluctant to wear personal protective equipment, like face masks.

Almeida said that as expected, there was a shortage of PPE that could be delivered to polling places across the state.

“In addition to voter confusion, we also heard reports of polls opening late, particularly because of confusion around poll books and poll workers not being properly trained, not just on election law, but actually how to interact with folks,” Almeida said. 

The coalition is seeking approval from the Legislature on measures to broaden voter accessibility, since the pandemic will likely still be looming in November. This includes legislative approval on adjusting deadlines for absentee and mail-in ballots and for ballots to be sent to every voter in the state by mail.

Murphy said the budget allocation to pay for printing and postage costs would be about $15 million.

“It’s truly a question of whether the Legislature wants to guarantee that November’s election goes smoothly,” Murphy said.

Julia Shanahan, a journalism student at the University of Iowa, is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.