The next election in Pennsylvania is already less than four months away. The people who run it have barely caught their breath from the last one.
But the May 18 primary is when we really start to see what Pennsylvania elections will look like from now on, after the biggest state election law reforms in decades.
That’s because the 2020 election was, in some ways, too big to fail. With a massive expansion of mail voting during a pandemic and a presidential race in the glare of a national spotlight, badly needed resources poured in. When elections officials needed still more money after increases in government funding, philanthropy helped fill some of the gap. As older poll workers opted out, advocacy groups rallied huge numbers of younger ones.
Now, as attention recedes, elections officials are doing the hard, behind-the-scenes work they didn’t get to do last year of building a sustainable electoral system.
“We’ve brought on a whole new operation to voters, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that wasn’t just for that election, now this is here to stay,” said Bill Turner, acting elections director for Chester County.
Officials are back to working with extremely tight budgets, with little prospect of the kind of grants that supplemented operations last year. There’s less help from outside groups on things like voter education campaigns. Public interest has dimmed, meaning fewer volunteers.
It’s a natural swing of the pendulum as the public moves on from an all-consuming presidential election — and it shows that long-term challenges remain.
“We could do a lot of things last year because we had the resources. … We just didn’t know exactly how to create a system for it and were doing it on the fly,” said Bob Harvie, the Bucks County commissioner who chairs the board of elections. “This time, we kind of know what we need, but it comes back to: Do we have the resources for it?”
Making it all more difficult, counties have to grapple with the potential for voter confusion as Republicans mount a push in Harrisburg to scale back mail ballots in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
Bucks County, like others across the state, is significantly increasing its elections budget and staffing. But that growth may only be enough to meet the minimal demands of Act 77, the state law enacted in late 2019. It could leave optional services voters came to appreciate like mail ballot drop boxes out of the picture.
“We used to just do in-person elections, right?” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, the office that runs elections. “We train our [poll workers], and we put our voting machines out on the street, we take our voting machines back, and we count our ballots at the end of the night.”
That all changed last year, the first time any Pennsylvania voter could cast a ballot by mail, and the pandemic fueled massive demand for mail ballots. Deeley hopes the city’s upcoming spending plan will provide relief, but she acknowledged the difficulties of asking for money with a budget crisis looming.
“You need to have the money to do the things you’re required by law to do,” she said.
That reality leaves counties making hard decisions about what level of service to provide to voters. When money flowed in 2020, counties were able to open satellite elections offices where people could vote early using mail ballots in person, install drop boxes for hand delivery to bypass the Postal Service, and provide prepaid postage for voters to turn in their mail ballots.
Those options are likely to be scaled back in many cases.
“There were things we were able to do in 2020 that we’re probably not going to be able to do in 2021,” said Delaware County Council member Christine Reuther. “Unless there’s funding for it from the state or federal government, I don’t believe we have the funding in this year’s budget to pay the return postage on mail-in ballots.”
That’s one of the most common rollbacks across counties, since the state provided prepaid postage last fall for mail ballots.
Counties that installed drop boxes found them to be a popular option with voters who feared ballots being delayed in the mail. But in addition to the logistical challenges — like finding the right locations and emptying the boxes regularly — there are funding challenges in keeping them secure. Some counties want to monitor the boxes by assigning staff or by setting up cameras.
“We own them. We have the boxes, they’re ready to be deployed,” said Turner, of Chester County. “But the big question there is we made the commitment to staff them with two people, but is that going to be something that now we set the precedent, something we’re always going to do? On the flip side we had people use them … is that going to be an expectation now?”
Similarly, counties that opened satellite elections offices for in-person early voting using mail ballots have to figure out whether they can afford to do so again. Philadelphia had 17 such offices last fall. The city may have just one for the primary: the main office in City Hall as required by state law, said Nick Custodio, Deeley’s deputy.
Even if money is made available, there’s the additional challenge of finding locations. Last year, Philadelphia’s offices were primarily located in public school buildings that were empty due to the pandemic. Those buildings won’t be available in the future.
Bucks County will reopen its two satellite offices, which is relatively simple because they’re located in county government buildings. Delaware County isn’t planning on having satellite offices for the primary.
Montgomery County will have satellite offices, but the details haven’t been worked out and there may be fewer locations or operating hours, said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer and clerk of its elections board.
“The reasons we opened them up to begin with in 2020 still stand, in that we give people the most access and ability to vote as possible — but that’s not an every-four-years thing, that’s a two-times-a-year thing,” he said.
Some service reductions may make sense as turnout falls. But several elections officials are wary of ballot access decisions being driven by money. In-person voting, after all, doesn’t change between elections: Counties open the same number of polling places whether it’s a low-turnout local primary or a high-turnout presidential general election. They don’t want to see availability of services such as satellite offices and drop boxes swing back and forth.
Nor do they want to confuse voters.
So as they prepare for an election coming in just a few months, county elections officials are trying to set expectations for the public. They’re figuring out how to run elections moving forward and build a new system. And they’re doing it without the attention and resources they had just a few months ago.
“How do we build a sustainable, repetitive process that we can continue to scale to whatever the election is?” Reuther said. “That is still a question that we are seeking clarity on.”