As Pennsylvania prepares for its June 2 primary, just two days before the state’s stay-at-home orders are lifted on June 4, state and local election officials must act now to ensure the pandemic doesn’t jeopardize our election. Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their safety and making their voices heard. Officials must take steps to protect both: mail every registered voter a ballot with paid return postage. At a minimum, officials should extend the deadlines to apply for and submit ballots by mail.
For the first time, Pennsylvania voters can cast a ballot by mail without an excuse. You have until May 26 to request a ballot. Officials can ensure it’s a success by making sure voters, already reeling from the emotional, physical, and economic stress of the pandemic, don’t have to ask for a ballot.
Pennsylvania should lead during this crisis. Our state needs a vote-by-mail message so loud that Gritty can hear it at the Wells Fargo Center. Using the $14.1 million in federal funds Congress has provided under the CARES Act will help cover the cost.
Election officials must also be mindful that vote-by-mail isn’t a cure-all. According to figures from state VBM reporting, 90,840 mail-in ballots have been requested by Philly voters, compared with only 6,364 in the 2016 primary — that’s only approximately 9% of registered Philly voters.
These low numbers are due in part to the city’s digital divide, which has been amplified as more people move online for work and school. While applying online to vote by mail isn’t the only way to do it, it is certainly the easiest and quickest. By applying online, voters can send an application instantly, avoid paying for an envelope and stamp, and even track its status.
But what about those who don’t have access to a computer? Right now, voters are being told to call 1-877-VOTESPA. However, if most of the promotion to request a mail-in ballot is being done online in the first place, how are voters getting the information they need to apply?
Officials should start by meeting voters where they are — on their phones — through text message and social media ads. And they shouldn’t stop there. They should be creative and consider public service announcements and phone calls, as well as a partnership with businesses like the recently reopened Fine Wine and Good Spirits, which could distribute mail-in ballot applications just as they do with voter registration applications. Grocery stores and food delivery services could do the same. Local artists have already teamed up with the Streets Dept, a local art blog, to design a series of voter information posters in four languages.
It would be easy to call this election early. We could give it the old Philly Shrug and accept that turnout will be low. This is an opportunity to drop the Shrug and embrace the hustle and hope that makes this city so great.
State and local officials need only look at the election debacle of Wisconsin a few weeks ago for a reality check. Wisconsin officials failed to plan, lawmakers let partisan politics guide who gets access to the ballot box, and the result was chaos, confusion, and uncertainty for voters. That’s no way to run a democracy. Luckily, there’s time for Pennsylvania to learn from those mistakes to get it right for June, for November, and beyond. Our democracy and our health depend on it.