Pa. election coalition calls voting effort a ‘success story’ with caveats

    Pennsylvania voters faced a host of challenges at the polls on Election Day, including language access issues, voter participation barriers, armed constables, long lines, and poll delays, a non-partisan voter protection coalition said Wednesday.

    Despite those obstacles, “we did have an election where people turned out and cast their ballot, despite in some cases significant obstacles to doing so,” Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said.

    Almeida is part of the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition, a group of non-partisan political and legal advocacy organizations dedicated to ensuring a “smooth” election. 

    The group was out in force across the state with more than 2000 volunteers at more than 575 polling locations, according to Salewa Ogunmefun, civic engagement and political manager at Center for Popular Democracy, a political advocacy organization.

    “But these individuals and organizations that were led by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and were placed in their communities, were really able to change the tenor of this incredibly fraught election, and make voting feel safer for folks of color across the state,” Almeida said.

    According to the coalition, Pennsylvania voters faced several obstacles on Nov. 3, both old and new.

    With mail-in ballots being a relatively new experience for Pennsylvania voters, voter confusion was on full display with questions about provisional ballots, as stated by Sara J. Rose, senior staff attorney at ACLU Pennsylvania.

    “But I think that it was ultimately handled pretty well, and we were prepared to go to court in the event that any polling places were not allowing people to follow the correct procedures,” Rose said. “But in every case, the counties were able to inform the poll workers about the correct procedures if they weren’t being followed.”

    Meanwhile, other issues, such as language barriers, persisted.

    “And so these things came to a head at one particular poll in York County, where our volunteers interpreted for over 20 people and faced resistance every time, but were in fact able to make sure that every voter was able to vote, and that they were able to access that language interpretation,” Elizabeth Alex, chief of organizing and leadership at CASA, an Latino and immigrant advocacy organization, said. “But the process was harder than it needed to be.”

    The presence of armed constables in several polling locations across the state also proved to be a hurdle, according to the coalition.

    “In some places, we saw constables that were directing some voters to go to a different place that wasn’t the door for them to actually access to be able to vote. In some counties, we saw constables that were just like standing outside and yelling at voters as they came up,” Ogunmefun said. “In some counties, I think one county, we saw a constable that was asking people who they were going to vote for before they actually let them into the polling location.”

    Some voters were also demanded to show ID at polling sites, a situation Ogunmefun described as generally “targeted” towards immigrant voters.

    “And we heard from voters that that was one of the experiences that made a lot of people feel uncomfortable, and it was reoccurring, and in a lot of different places,” Ogunmefun said. “And there were a lot of situations we were able to have those resolved, but there were also some situations where that was not able to be resolved.”

    Ultimately, many of these issues highlighted serious inequities in the voting system.

    “On the one hand, those of us who do this work say those are very typical things that happen every election day,” Ray Murphy, state coordinator of Keystone Votes, said. “But also speaking to the points that [Alex] just made, they really paint the picture of the fact that there are two different election systems in our state, and lower income and communities of color often face significant barriers in any and every election cycle to cast ballots compared to their white counterparts.”

    Additionally, there were some polling places where workers were not wearing masks, but those were handled, according to Rose.

    However, Election Day was not without its pluses, Rose said.

    “And on a positive note, we actually got way fewer complaints from voters who had registered to vote about not being in the poll books, and we got very few complaints,” Rose said.

    With ballots still left to be counted, the results of this election have already been challenged in the courts by Republicans.

    “We don’t think there’s any basis to these losses,” Rose said. “There’s no reason why people should not be allowed to correct mistakes and ensure that they actually have a vote and a say in this election.”

    “CASA will be at the steps of the Capitol Building tomorrow, with hundreds of voters, including first time voters, including people who had language access issues,” Alex said. “And standing in vigil, because this is our Commonwealth, this is all of our struggle. And we all deserve to make sure that our vote was counted.” 

    And while the coalition largely views this election as a success, they also believe that there is much room for improvement.

    “To the extent that as I said earlier, we still see significant differences in access to the ballot, despite the fact that our country guarantees that all members of our democracy have an equal right to cast their vote, we still have some ways to go in making secure and modern updates to the Pennsylvania election code,” Murphy said.

    Kenny Cooper is a Hearken Election SOS Fellow who is helping the Capital-Star cover the 2020 election.