With the coronavirus still spreading, Montgomery County poll workers are already calling in to beg off their shifts.
The county is buying two more scanners to count mail-in ballots — at $25,000 apiece — and may need even more, but doesn’t have the space or staffing. Berks County ordered two scanners, too, but could only get one because demand has spiked. Philadelphia has already lost polling places and officials expect more will follow. And in Delaware County, election officials are falling behind on processing mail-in ballot requests — seven weeks before the state’s rescheduled June 2 primary.
As Wisconsin’s election debacle showed Tuesday, the coronavirus has left officials across the country scrambling to prepare for short staffing, health hazards at the polls, and a tsunami of demand for mail-in voting. Those hoping to avoid a repeat in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have much to do and little time.
“Sorry, you get very emotional, you get frustrated. You want to conduct a successful election. I don’t want to be Wisconsin,” said Debbie Olivieri, the Berks County elections director.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey have both postponed their primary elections due to the pandemic, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said further changes, including a move to an entirely vote-by-mail election, could still come for its July 7 primary.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers made other election changes when they postponed the date, but Olivieri and other county elections officials said that wasn’t enough — they need more flexibility, including, some said, a move to vote entirely by mail, as several other states have done, including Alaska, Wyoming, and Ohio, which all vote this month.
“We can learn from what happened in other states and fix this now. And we can’t," Olivieri said. “Our hands are tied.”
Wisconsin sent up a vivid warning flare about what can go wrong in the primary elections still unfolding, and perhaps in the presidential election in November.
States are increasingly turning to mail-in voting to ensure that people can exercise one of democracy’s most fundamental rights, but the change isn’t easy. Changing habits, processing and counting mail-in ballots, while also keeping polling places open and safe, requires expensive equipment, training and new staffing.
“It took us five years as a state to move from poll-side voting to vote-by-mail just to build in that capacity in our larger counties," said Kim Wyman, the secretary of state in Washington state, one of five states that rely almost entirely on mail-in voting.
In the 2018 election around 96% of ballots in Pennsylvania and 88% in New Jersey were cast in-person according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.
Both states have seen a surge in absentee-ballot requests, with Pennsylvania already receiving three times more applications for mail-in ballots than were cast in the 2016 primary. And the election is still weeks away.
Wisconsin faced a similar shift. Election officials there ran short of envelopes and struggled to process a flood of late requests, so tens of thousands of ballots reached voters too late. Voters ended up in long lines, sometimes for hours, despite the risk of a life-threatening illness. Milwaukee opened just five of 180 polling places.
“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that a competent response requires early and comprehensive action,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of the Democrats leading the push to increase vote-by-mail nationwide and urging Congress to approve $2 billion in new funding for elections, on top of the $400 million already approved.
States have a long to-do list.
It includes: building the capacity to print more envelopes and mail-in ballots; acquiring big, expensive ballot-sorting machines, scanners to count them, and ballot-tracking software; training staff, despite restrictions on group gatherings, and setting up secure storage for ballots. States will also have to ensure that their web sites can handle the demands, and that they can count mailed ballots quickly and accurately. (Wisconsin, as of Friday, still had not produced results.)
Washington state sets up 500 drop boxes where voters can leave their ballots if they don’t want to trust their vote to the mail.
And it’s not only mail-in voting that needs updating, since many people, including those who are blind or disabled, may still have to, or choose to, vote in-person.
So experts advise also allowing more early voting, to spread out the crowds, and setting up curbside voting where people can cast ballots from their cars. States will need to increase staffing to account for the many poll workers who call out. They’ll need sanitizer and protective gear for poll workers and voters.
“Unfortunately this is not going to be easy given the financial crisis that so many states are going to be facing, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but it’s going to require more resources,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
The effort will also require a huge public awareness push, especially since most in Pennsylvania and New Jersey vote in person.
“We’re starting public education basically from scratch,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who noted that the state is going into its first election in which anyone can vote by mail, for any reason. “I’ve gotten texts from people that I consider highly engaged, highly educated people who still have no idea that we had vote by mail.”
She said a major education campaign is planned, including postcards that will go out to voters in the coming weeks explaining their options, along with campaigns on social media and elsewhere.
In Ohio, some newspapers have printed absentee-ballot requests that voters can cut out and mail, and grocery stores are adding the request forms when people check out.
Few states have used mail-in voting on the scale likely to be required this year.
A faint silver lining for Pennsylvania and New Jersey is that their primaries will give them a chance to test their readiness before November’s general election. And New Jersey will run a smaller, local election entirely by mail May 12.
Some Democrats want Congress to mandate national standards that make it easier to vote during the crisis, including requiring early voting, no-excuse mail-in voting, and automatically sending absentee ballots to every registered voter, though those ideas face opposition from Republicans, who say the rules should be left to individual states.
Some practices that experts recommend could require changes to state laws. (Most voting rules are set by state governments). Amber McReynolds, the head of the nonpartisan National Vote Home Institute and former elections director in Denver, said states should use statewide or regional coordination, so counties aren’t overwhelmed.
Funding and changes to laws, however, could be tied up in partisanship.
While some Republican governors and secretaries of state embrace mail-in voting, many others, including President Donald Trump, have blasted the calls to expand it, arguing it opens the door to fraud and helps Democrats. (Trump voted by mail in 2018 and requested a mail-in ballot last month for Florida’s primary.)
Democrats say every public official should want voting to be as accessible as possible.
Even if Pennsylvania and New Jersey can quickly ramp up their vote-by-mail operations, advocates say that method doesn’t work for people who are homeless, transient, or who can’t read English. And the post office doesn’t serve tribal lands.
Some people simply prefer the assurance or tradition of voting in person. So polls will still have to be open.
“It’s not just about upcoming primaries,” McReynolds said. “It’s also about preparing for November, and clearly there’s going to be a huge shift in how voters vote.”