Voting by mail has been in the spotlight all election season, and has been fodder for numerous lawsuits in the first year any Pennsylvania voter can cast a mail ballot.
But only about one-third of this year’s record 9 million registered Pennsylvania voters are submitting mail ballots. That leaves millions planning to vote in person on Nov. 3 in the most contentious Election Day in memory — amid warnings of voter intimidation and against the backdrop of a raging pandemic.
Wondering what to expect? Elections experts and officials say to prepare for long lines, new safety precautions, unfamiliar voting machines, and new polling places. There might be a few unwelcome distractions, but there also will be food trucks, DJs, and at least two circuses. Bring a mask, a pen, some form of ID if you’re a first-time voter at your precinct — and a whole lot of patience.
Here’s what you need to know.
For those who haven’t voted since the last presidential election: You’ve missed a lot.
Legislation passed in 2019 eliminated straight-ticket voting in Pennsylvania, which more than one-third of voters relied on to cast ballots strictly along party lines. A year before that, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all counties to switch over to voting machines that leave a paper trail, a significant security upgrade because every vote can be audited and manually recounted. Some counties, including Northampton and York, encountered technical issues their first time using the new machines, while others, including Montgomery, had voter and poll worker confusion as part of the rollout.
“For those people who go to vote in person, they’re going to see a new voting system," said Lisa Deeley, chair of the city commissioners, who run elections. “They may or may not be in a different location than they were in 2016. They may not recognize their election board worker. And they’re going to go to a new voting machine, close the curtain and not be able to vote straight party. "We hope that we are communicating well enough to help them understand the different Election Day they will see.”
Social distancing, and efforts to keep voters outdoors while they wait, will make lines appear longer than they are.
But the lines also may actually be long, said Stephen Pettigrew, director of data sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies.
“The more time people take to fill out their ballot, the more chance it will create a bottleneck," Pettigrew said.
He said several factors are likely to slow down voters this election: the end of straight-ticket voting, unfamiliarity with new machines, and the four ballot questions Philadelphia has tacked on for voter approval.
Another complicating factor: Some voters who requested mail ballots may change their mind and vote in person. Those voters can bring their mail ballots, have them voided, and vote on machines as if they were never requested. But if they don’t bring their mail ballots, they have to complete an affidavit and vote on a provisional paper ballot — all of which can slow down lines.
Deeley said last week that workers were being trained to process those requests.
Ryan Mann, 40, a teacher from West Philadelphia, said he plans to void his mail ballot and vote in person because he worries that mail ballots being slower to count will make it easier for President Donald Trump to declare victory based most on in-person votes that skew in his favor. A disproportionate number of Democrats are voting by mail, while more Republicans are voting in person, following Trump’s false attacks on the method.
Mann said he’ll wait in line as long as it takes. It’s not Election Day that worries him. “I’m afraid of what the days after Election Day will look like,” Mann said.
Pettigrew said surveys have found voters’ views on Election Day lines are elastic: The wait times they consider reasonable tend to correlate to wait times in their communities.
“People might be more tolerant waiting in longer lines this time around for a couple reasons: Americans in general are incredibly enthusiastic about voting in this election," he said. "And the pandemic makes everything in our lives so weird right now — so I think that itself might make people more understanding.”
As the coronavirus continues to spike again in the region, elections officials are pledging to do their best to keep voters safe while protecting their rights.
In Bucks County, poll workers will be protected by plastic shields, and hand sanitizer will be provided. Pens will be cleaned between voters. Masks will be required, and county emergency services will disinfect the polling places.
In Philadelphia, voters will be issued a single, disposable kitchen glove, since hand sanitizer and touchscreen voting machines don’t mix. Disposable masks will be available, and there will be enough pens to keep them sanitized (though bringing your own is still a good idea). Signs will be posted encouraging social distancing.
The pandemic also forced some changes in polling locations: Firehouses, senior centers and retirement communities were all taken out of commission. Philadelphia’s polling place lookup tool is at atlas.phila.gov/voting.
While masks are strongly encouraged, Deeley said, they are not required: “We can’t make a test for voters to be able to exercise their right to vote.”
Civil-rights groups are preparing for any instances of voter intimidation or suppression. Those include the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Common Cause, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which will dispatch more than 2,000 workers around the state and staff a hotline — the number is 1-866-OUR -VOTE — to respond to Election Day issues.
For the most part, organizers are expecting routine glitches — possibly stemming from the fact that more than half of poll workers will be new to the job.
ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak said the group will be on the lookout for the routine glitches and long lines, as well as orchestrated intimidation and misinformation around polling places.
“One problem that we have seen occasionally in the past is essentially groundless challenges made by poll watchers to voters," he said, citing an effort in 2004 around universities that forced students to wait three or four hours to vote. "They rarely succeed, but that’s a way to make the lines even longer. If you deploy those challenges in strategic polling locations that’s a way to potentially disenfranchise voters.”
The District Attorney’s Office also has an Election Task Force hotline — 215-686-9641 — ready to respond if any activity verges into the criminal.
Suzanne Almeida of Common Cause said groups like hers are prepared for that — but not necessarily expecting it. She said voters should feel comfortable turning out: “There are organizations and individuals that have their back.”