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Pennsylvania is getting a different kind of ‘early voting’ in time for the 2020 election

It’s not technically what most people understand as “early voting,” but it’s a method for people to cast ballots in person in advance of the actual election day, without worrying about deadlines and mail problems.

A Pennsylvania absentee ballot from the 2019 general election.
A Pennsylvania absentee ballot from the 2019 general election.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Early voting is coming to Pennsylvania in time for the presidential election. Sort of.

Under a new law, people will have the option of requesting and submitting an absentee ballot during one in-person visit to county elections offices, starting more than a month and a half before an election day. It’s not technically what most people understand as “early voting” — people won’t be using the usual voting machines — but it’s a method for people to cast ballots in person in advance of the actual election without worrying about deadlines and mail problems.

And while it won’t be equally available across the state, it could play a role in the 2020 election: Pennsylvania has historically been one of the more restrictive states for absentee voting, and the expanded access to mail-in ballots could lead to significant changes in how votes are cast across the critical battleground state.

It’s part of the biggest election policy changes in decades. Under the law, enacted late last year in a compromise between Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and Republican legislators, voters are no longer required to provide a justification for requesting a mail-in ballot. That starts with the April 28 presidential primary.

The new law requires every county to accept absentee ballots in their local elections office. But the Pennsylvania Department of State is now encouraging counties to go beyond that minimum: Counties can open additional offices and use them outside of traditional business hours, including on weekends, expanding in-person voting far beyond the traditional 13 hours on a Tuesday.

How much it expands will depend on both the will of county officials and the money available to them. County elections officials are already under pressure to implement major changes to the state electoral system in a high-turnout presidential election year.

“For our county, it would be impractical, not very effective, and financially, logistically, just undoable. We don’t have the staff,” said Forrest Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania. “If it doesn’t benefit us, I’m not sure how it would benefit a whole lot of counties unless they had really high populations.”

The result could be a patchwork system across the state where some counties, particularly the wealthier and more populated ones, are able to open more early voting sites and potentially increase turnout. Smaller counties, particularly rural and poorer ones, may be less able to do so.

That, Lehman said, “really raises questions about equal treatment of voters across counties and possibly within counties.”

Two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including Lycoming, have fewer than 100,000 registered voters. Almost half have less than 50,000.

While elections officials mostly demurred from speaking about any specific plans — the state only put out its first guidance on the issue on Friday — they generally agreed that opening elections offices for “early voting” would make more sense for some counties than others.

Philadelphia elections administrators are “still evaluating” the possibility of allowing “early voting” in their Old City office, Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said in an email. That would be in addition to their current office in City Hall. Custodio didn’t comment on the possibility of opening additional locations.

Delaware County officials plan to open new elections offices, said Brian P. Zidek, chair of the County Council. Bucks County’s elections director said it was “too early” to comment on the possibility of new offices, as did officials in Montgomery and Chester Counties.

How Pennsylvania’s new ‘early voting’ works

While absentee ballots are supposed to be sent through the mail, there’s a way to use them to vote in person:

  1. Voters can apply for an absentee or mail-in ballot in person at a county elections office beginning 50 days before an election.

  2. Those voters may request to have their application processed immediately and receive a ballot on the spot.

  3. Elections officials must provide an opportunity for those voters to secretly fill out their ballot.

  4. Voters can then hand over their filled-out ballot.

Most counties have long allowed absentee voters to do this kind of “early voting,” but Pennsylvania’s absentee ballot system was so restrictive that very few voters qualified for absentee ballots. Now that everyone is eligible for mail-in ballots, any voter can use “early voting.”

“Under the new law, every voter will have the ability to choose from the new menu of voting options whether by mailing their ballot in, requesting and returning it at a county election office, or voting traditionally at a polling place on election day,” Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said in an email.

What counties could do with ‘early voting’

Research is mixed on the exact impact of early voting on turnout, with some finding that early voters tend to be people who would have voted anyway on the election day. Other studies suggest it can increase turnout, particularly if political campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts emphasize it.

The appeal is intuitive: Expanding voting hours beyond one day gives people more opportunities to cast ballots, and could potentially help poor and working-class voters who are less able to find time to vote on a specific day.

For now, the “early voting” allowed under the new law is limited to county elections offices. That means counties cannot simply open early voting sites: They have to open entire satellite offices for voter services.

The Pennsylvania Department of State said counties should carefully consider where those satellite offices are located.

“Choose locations that serve heavily populated urban/suburban areas, as well as rural areas,” the guidance sent last week said.

In addition, the Department of State said, “Counties may want to select locations in areas in which there have historically been delays at existing polling locations, and areas with historically low turnout.”

The challenges for counties

Counties are already under heavy pressure to implement the new law, alongside new voting machines, and several county elections officials said expanding “early voting” would be difficult to do on top of that.

» READ MORE: Extending Pennsylvania’s voter registration deadline in 2020 could disenfranchise people, election officials warn

Elections offices can’t just pop up wherever. They need to be on property owned or leased by the government, have access to state voter registration systems, and allow for the on-demand printing of ballots and safe storage of them. And they need workers.

All of that adds up to increased costs, especially if the “early voting” would include expanded hours.

“At the moment, I’m not sure how we pull it off with everything else on our plate," said Jeff Greenburg, elections director in Mercer County in northwest Pennsylvania. “The convenience is something that is a good idea for voters — the issue is right now we’re struggling to make sure we have enough staffing just in our office to do the work that we see coming" from the new law.”