It is a real problem and a shame that voters in Philadelphia currently have only 13 drop box locations at which to drop off their completed ballots. The 13 locations, while a start, do not provide the equitable geographic coverage that voters deserve. Voters in West Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, and in the lower Northwest do not have any drop boxes in their neighborhoods at the time of this writing.
On Monday, City Commissioner Lisa Deeley indicated to Billy Penn that three additional drop boxes will soon be added in Roxborough, Northeast Philly, and Haddington (in West Philadelphia). That’s a good start — but not nearly enough.
The absence of drop boxes in these neighborhoods creates a hurdle for voters who live there. Delays in postal service have made voters anxious about relying on U.S. mail service. If a voter wants to exercise their right to use a mail ballot but is worried that their ballot might not arrive safely by the deadline if sent through the U.S. mail, they should be able to drop it off in an official ballot drop box relatively close to home. In previous elections, voters in West Philadelphia have had to worry about the security of mailboxes in their neighborhood.
While any Philadelphia voter can use any drop box in the city, making voters in neighborhoods without drop boxes travel to Center City or to a distant neighborhood creates an extra burden on these voters as they try to exercise their right to vote by mail ballot.
Here’s my own situation as an example: I live in Roxborough, and I work in West Philly. Neither neighborhood had a drop box when I was done with my ballot. With the current drop box map, I needed to travel to Center City to place my ballot securely in a drop box. (I didn’t see a closer option with a direct bus line from my home.) I took a bus trip to City Hall and deposited my ballot the other day. I solved my individual problem (using my time and my TransPass), but that doesn’t solve the larger issue, which is magnified by tens of thousands of voters.
Philadelphia’s goal should be to encourage voter participation. Making voters drive around the city or spend extra hours on the bus does the opposite. No-excuse mail-in voting is a right Pennsylvanians have had since Act 77 was passed in 2019. It was fortunate that Act 77 was passed just before the pandemic, as it enabled many people to vote safely who might not have been able to. Going forward, elected officials should make sure this option is available and accessible for voters. Philadelphia should be prioritizing voters and making it easier for them to be able to cast their votes. Having more than 13 drop boxes around the city is one very important step in this direction.
What makes the current situation most shameful is the City Commissioners have more than 20 additional drop boxes ready and waiting, which could be in use. The City Commissioners were able to purchase 40 drop boxes in 2020 using one-time grant funds. The delay in placing them around the city is tied to difficulty in identifying appropriate locations with 24/7 access, obtaining cameras for the continuous monitoring of those locations, and paying for administrative support.
Planning and collaboration should have occurred long before we reached this current critical moment. We needed a concerted effort, coordinated among the City Commissioners, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the School District, the Free Library, and the Office of Information and Technology. The Mayor’s Office and City Council should step in to provide this coordination and should find funding for the necessary cameras.
Why are we in this spot? This should not be such a heavy lift. This is the fourth election cycle with mail-in voting as an option for Pennsylvania voters, so it is truly bewildering that both the map of locations and the logistical plan for installing and maintaining drop boxes with cameras throughout the city have not been settled by now. The voters of Philadelphia deserve much better.
Rebecca Poyourow is a committeeperson in the 21st Ward.