Officials in two Southeastern Pennsylvania counties are calling for the state to make the June 2 primary an all-mail election to protect the safety of voters in the state’s most populous region and the epicenter of its coronavirus cases.
And officials in a third county, while not going so far as to call for a mail-in election, say they might have to defy an order from Gov. Tom Wolf and not use new voting machines because they lack the training time and staff to prepare them.
“Make no mistake, asking counties in Pennsylvania to administer an in-person election on any scale is putting everyone in a position where failure is the most likely outcome,” Montgomery County’s two Democratic commissioners, Val Arkoosh and Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr., wrote in a letter sent this week to Wolf, legislative leaders, and the county’s state lawmakers.
Chester County’s commissioners said Friday for the first time that they believe ballots should be mailed to every voter.
In neighboring Delaware County, officials worry they cannot comply with the governor’s order to use new voting machines and protect public health. Instead of using the new systems that scan paper ballots at the polls, the county may simply collect the ballots and scan them all at the courthouse.
The actions come as the counties face limited time to prepare for an election during the nation’s largest public health emergency in a century, and after an April 7 primary in Wisconsin turned into a fiasco, with thousands of voters unable to receive absentee ballots in time, shuttered polling places, and hours-long lines to vote in Milwaukee and other urban areas.
Like counterparts across the state, officials in the Philadelphia-area counties say they face a variety of challenges, including poll workers who are dropping out and polling places that aren’t available.
And, of course, in-person elections mean people congregate in central locations, contrary to social distancing guidelines.
“In addition to many logistical concerns, conducting an in-person election would be the antithesis of the action we should be taking to properly address the effects of this virus on our population,” the Montgomery County commissioners wrote.
It described an in-person election as “irresponsible from a policy and planning perspective and potentially catastrophic from a public health perspective.” (The third commissioner, Republican Joe Gale, declined to sign.)
Chester County’s commissioners, two Democrats and a Republican, said in a statement Friday that “the unprecedented challenges we are currently facing with COVID-19” make mailing ballots to all voters “the best option for the health and safety of our community.”
However, Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell, and Michelle Kichline wrote, a limited number of polling places would still be required to ensure access for voters who need them, such as those who are homeless or have disabilities.
Similarly, Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir supports a mail-in election if there are a small number of traditional voting stations “open for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities.”
Fellow Democrat Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners, “does not want to rule any options out,” her deputy commissioner said. The third commissioner, Republican Al Schmidt, did not respond to a request for comment.
In Delaware County, officials are hoping to avoid an entirely mail-in election, said County Councilwoman Christine Reuther, a Democrat.
But if the county can’t complete training and preparations by mid-May, she said, it will not use the new machines and will “deal with whatever the fallout is.”
The county’s new voting system uses hand-marked paper ballots that are fed into a scanner.
One option, Reuther said, is to collect all the paper ballots at the polls and take them to the courthouse to be tabulated.
“It is not what I want to do. Certainly, if we did it without the governor’s blessing, we would be looking at possible repercussions,” she said. “But I can assure you, the only reason we would do that is if we did not feel we could both respect the public health emergency restrictions and deploy the machines.”
Major changes would require the Republican-controlled state legislature to pass a bill. While there was consensus on postponing the primary, GOP leaders oppose expanded mail voting and counties are split.
State Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) said last month that an entirely vote-by-mail election was off the table.
“We’re not going to get to an all-mail situation, at least not for this year,” he said. “That’s something that takes a lot more discussing.”