Elections administrators from five counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the region hardest hit by the outbreak, are drafting a letter to send to Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of State, which oversees elections, requesting that the primary be delayed until June 23. County officials elsewhere said in interviews that they are making similar pleas to lawmakers and the Wolf administration.
“We’re having issues,” said Deborah Olivieri, elections director for Berks County. “Give us the time to do it right.”
In addition to public health concerns, the officials say it could be difficult to actually run an election. Some institutions are backing out of serving as polling locations, and some poll workers are saying they can’t work on election day.
“We have to be able to literally hold an election,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its elections board. Elections staff have stayed at home as part of a government closure there, and the elections offices in Philadelphia were similarly closed Tuesday and Wednesday this week. That means voters aren’t being registered, absentee ballot applications aren’t being processed, and other election preparations aren’t moving forward.
“It’s nearly impossible, frankly, for us to continue making progress preparing for the April 28 primary,” Soltysiak said.
Retirement communities and nursing homes have been the first to say they don’t want to host voting this time, given that older people are particularly at risk from the virus. But administrators also worry about churches and some other locations. And more poll workers, who tend to be older, will likely decide to sit out this election, they said.
“We’re pulling fire alarms all over the place, trying to tell the state what bad situations we’re in,” said Forrest K. Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County. “It gets to the point where … you have no infrastructure left.”
Other state political leaders said the situation was not yet dire. “My own personal view is there’s probably a little bit of time to make that decision," U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said Tuesday, adding that it’s a decision for state officials to make, not federal lawmakers. "This is a late April primary, I think, and we do have mail-in ballots that can be used widely.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told reporters Tuesday that he didn’t have a position on moving the primary.
“We have to see where we are at the point in time when we have to make a decision," he said. “But we’ll consult with everyone involved and make that decision when it’s appropriate. I think it’s a little early.”
Philadelphia’s chief elections official, City Commissioners Chair Lisa Deeley, said Monday that “having an in-person election on April 28 will be exceedingly difficult.”
In northwestern Pennsylvania, Mercer County elections director Jeff Greenburg said he gets frustrated when he hears people say there is still time to decide. The decision needs to be made now, he said.
“If we are going to move it, or we are going to make some other determination or contingency, we need to make that decision yesterday," he said. “It’s not comforting to hear from our leaders that ... we can hold off.”
Wolf has said state officials are considering their options for the primary, which in addition to the 2020 presidential race includes elections for U.S. House, state House, and state Senate races.
It’s unclear whether the governor can act unilaterally or whether lawmakers would need to amend the state Election Code, which sets the primary election date as the fourth Tuesday in April. Mike Straub, a spokesperson for the House Republican caucus, said lawmakers “have already started to poke around at what can be done.”
Elections officials are generally loath to reschedule elections. But as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened, a handful of states have postponed primaries, and others are considering it. Bucks County officials tried Monday night to persuade a court to delay a special election held Tuesday, but they were denied.
Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther said June 23 would give her county enough time to prepare, and for schools to let out for the summer.
One challenge, she said, is that the county wants to roll out new voting machines before November.
“If a decision is not made to postpone the primary ... it may also result in us not being able to deploy the machines,” she said.
The counties want to make sure the election is done right.
“No matter what, we’ll do an election. Because that’s people’s right,” Reuther said. “But how well it happens … that is another issue entirely.”