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Election Day is less than a week away and officials are scrambling to finalize their plans

The deadline for returning mail ballots remains one of the biggest points of uncertainty.

Voters fill out forms while waiting in line to apply for and submit mail ballots at City Hall in Philadelphia on Monday.
Voters fill out forms while waiting in line to apply for and submit mail ballots at City Hall in Philadelphia on Monday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania elections officials continued to scramble Wednesday to finalize their plans for the most difficult election they’ve ever run, with less than a week left before polls open.

Those preparations include figuring out how to respond to a continued surge in coronavirus cases and prevent voters, poll workers, and staff from getting sick; how to ensure as many mail ballots are properly cast and counted as possible, despite ongoing uncertainty around the deadline for returning them; and how, in Philadelphia, to protect the right to vote amid continued civil unrest and community outrage over the police shooting of a Black man in West Philadelphia.

All while pulling off the biggest changes to Pennsylvania’s electoral system in decades.

“This year obviously is a little bit more extraordinary, dealing with a pandemic on top of a presidential election,” said Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. “But it’s not insurmountable.”

The Pennsylvania Republican Party’s attempt to fast-track a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether overturn an extension of mail ballot deadlines was denied Wednesday. But the GOP’s request for the court to take up the case remains open. That means the high court could still ultimately strike down — even after Election Day — a state Supreme Court ruling that extended the deadline for returning ballots.

And that leaves open the prospect that voters who mailed ballots later because the deadline had been extended might have their votes thrown out after the fact.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, on Wednesday told counties to separate ballots arriving between 8 p.m. on Election Day, the deadline under the law, and 5 p.m. on Nov. 6, the deadline set by the state court, in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the extension.

» READ MORE: Could the election in Pennsylvania be decided by Amy Coney Barrett? Probably not. Here’s why.

Counties were also told to keep a log of those ballots, including the name and address of the voters, the USPS delivery dates, and information on postmarks on the envelopes.

And Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar warned Wednesday that time has run out for voters to rely upon standard mail delivery.

The U.S. Postal Service has said ballots should be mailed back by voters at least one week before they need to arrive. On Wednesday, Boockvar urged voters to use other methods to return their ballots, especially by hand-delivering them to county elections offices or using drop boxes.

“Put it in overnight mail to your county election office if you have to,” Boockvar told reporters, “but we really recommend that you drop it off in person. There are more drop-off locations than ever before in Pennsylvania.”

The deadline for returning those ballots remains one of the biggest points of uncertainty.

» READ MORE: What we will and won’t know on election night in Pennsylvania

But some plans began to crystallize in the meantime.

Philadelphia elections officials decided Wednesday to move forward with new “I voted” stickers that will be handed out at polling places next week. There are two sticker designs — one that says, “I voted,” and one for kids that says, “Future voter.” They are available in English and Spanish.

The designs were chosen from more than 150 entries in a contest held earlier this year, but their planned rollout in the primary election was delayed by the pandemic.

City officials also approved their COVID-19 safety regulations for polling places on Wednesday as cases surged. Voters who arrive at polling places without masks will be provided them, officials decided, but voters who refuse to wear them will still be allowed in to vote.

However, those unmasked voters will be required to stay at least six feet from other people at all times, and poll workers will try to keep other voters out of the site while unmasked voters are inside.

The new regulations also require poll workers to wear masks unless they have a medical condition that prevents them from doing so, in which case they must wear face shields or sit behind a plastic barrier and stay six feet from others the entire day.

» READ MORE: How Biden’s lead is different from Clinton’s — and why the polls are different this time

Transparent barriers will be set up between poll workers and voters wherever possible, and there should be a maximum of 10 people for every 1,000 square feet of space, the regulations say. Poll workers should open doors and windows to improve ventilation.

Polling places will have disposable gloves and sanitizer to prevent transmission through shared surfaces, and for safety, the total check-in and voting times should be no more than 15 minutes.

City elections officials encourage voters who experience possible COVID-19 symptoms to use an emergency absentee ballot instead of going to the polls, or to call 215-686-1590 for other options. Voters experiencing symptoms won’t be turned away from the polls, but they should tell poll workers they are symptomatic.

One thing limiting the number of polling-place contacts is the large number of Pennsylvania voters who are voting by mail.

This is the first year any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail, and the pandemic has fueled a massive surge in demand for mail ballots. More than three million voters had been approved to vote by mail as of Wednesday morning, and nearly two million ballots had already been marked as returned. State officials project about three million ballots will be cast by mail in this election.

Voters who request mail ballots and then decide to vote in person have to go through one of two processes that are more complicated than standard in-person voting, and many are likely to use provisional ballots, which are paper ballots set aside and counted only after other ballots are tallied.

Using a provisional ballot takes time, which could create lines, Boockvar said, but polling places that can separate those voters from regular in-person voters should be able to avoid high wait times.

“I think ultimately the lines will move faster in that there’ll be so many fewer people, but there are going to be different bottlenecks than there normally are, if that makes sense,” she said. “So the way the polling place is set up is really important in managing that.”