With Pa. Supreme Court ruling, Allegheny Co. Elections Board votes to expand mail-in ballot hours

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 23: Signage at an early voting center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota residents can vote in the general election every day until Election Day on November 8. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Allegheny County’s Board of Elections on Thursday unanimously approved additional hours and locations for voters to hand in, or apply for and fill out, their mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 general election — services that the state Supreme Court ruled on only hours before.

“Prior to today I would’ve advised this board very comfortably that our plan was perfectly permissible under the election code,” County Solicitor Andy Szefi said. “That has been clarified even more by the Supreme Court’s ruling today, which said that, absolutely there’s nothing preventing a board of elections from authorizing additional offices anywhere in the county that may be necessary to perform their duties.”

Prior to Thursday’s change, if voters wanted to hand over their mail-in ballot to elections officials in lieu of sending it through the postal service, they had to do it during the county’s normal business hours, and only at its main offices in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The Pa. Supreme Court ruled on critical election questions Thursday. Here’s what you need to know.

Now, Allegheny County joins a handful of other Pennsylvania counties that will allow voters to return their ballots in-person on any of the three Saturdays and Sundays preceding Nov. 3.

Elections officials across the state are logging long hours to ensure the reliability of the presidential election under a host of unprecedented circumstances. First, they have to get in place a whole host of new procedures mandated by a sweeping election law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf last year. Second, some voters are worried about going to the polls on Election Day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And finally, President Donald Trump, among others, has fomented various false conspiracy theories about mail-in voting, and repeated his claims from four years ago that if he loses, it means the election was rigged.

With a noisy background, voters in Allegheny County and the commonwealth will have to get acquainted with a whole new set of protocols, which include the new voter services.

David Voye, Allegheny County’s manager of the division of elections, explained the new procedure of going in-person to hand in a ballot originally designed to be put in the mail. The elections offices will perform two different services, he said. 

One will be taking sealed and completed ballots from voters. Voters can show up to any location when they’re open, and drop off their completed and signed mail-in ballot. Elections workers will take the sealed ballot and immediately put it in a secure ballot box.

The second service will be for residents who are already registered to vote, but have not submitted an application for a mail-in ballot. At one of the locations, first a registered voter will fill out a mail-in ballot application. 

An elections official will then verify in the county’s system that the individual has not yet voted, and then process the application. After that, voters will then receive a printed ballot corresponding to their voting district, and then vote in a “privacy booth,” Voye said, all in the same trip.

“I want to stress that this is not going to be like walking into a polling place in a municipal election with nobody in line,” Voye said. “This process will take somewhat longer,” perhaps ten or 15 minutes, he said.

The drop boxes are not like a library, in which you can show up at any time. If voters want to drop their already filled-out ballots off at any of the elections office locations, they have to do so during operating hours, Voye said.

There are yet more confusing caveats, since Allegheny County officials said that they expect printed ballots will be ready for voters in about a week’s time — before the deadline to register to vote.

Residents will not be able to register to vote in person at the satellite offices, Voye said, and voters have to wait to receive their voter registration card in the mail before they can request a mail-in ballot. The satellite offices will be for voting with mail-in ballots, not registering, Voye said.

Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, is the second-most populous county in the state, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a two-to-one margin.

At the Thursday meeting, Chet Harhut, deputy manager of the division of elections, reported 912,000 registered voters in Allegheny County, some 29,000 less than the final count in the 2018 midterm elections. The final day to register to vote is Oct. 19.

The state Supreme Court also effectively gave elections officials an additional three days to count mail-in ballots received through the mail, due to concerns of delays within the U.S. Postal Service. Previously, the deadline was Election Day.

Each of the three members of the board of elections, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, D-Pittsburgh, At-Large County Council members Sam DeMarco, R-Oakdale, and Bethany Hallam, D-Pittsburgh, relayed concerns from residents about how the county can make sure no one tries to vote twice.

All office locations will be able to update the status of voter applications and ballots in real time, according to Voye. Officials assured the board that voter fraud is a felony.

“They shouldn’t try and do it for lots of reasons, but the fact is if they try and do it, they’ll be in a world of trouble,” Fitzgerald said.

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