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Philly is about to get $10 million for mail ballot drop boxes, early voting, and raises for poll workers

Philadelphia elections officials are set to receive a huge influx of money to run the November election.

Alex Sargent, left, signs in to vote, with volunteer Melanie Wilson, right, on primary election day at the Free Library Falls of Schuykill Branch in Philadelphia on June 2.
Alex Sargent, left, signs in to vote, with volunteer Melanie Wilson, right, on primary election day at the Free Library Falls of Schuykill Branch in Philadelphia on June 2.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia elections officials are set to receive a huge influx of money to run the November election.

As part of a $10 million grant, they plan to open at least 800 polling places across the city, set up 15 neighborhood elections offices for in-person early voting using mail ballots, install at least 15 mail ballot drop boxes across the city, give poll workers coronavirus hazard pay of an additional $100, and buy equipment to dramatically increase the processing of mail ballots.

That’s according to a grant agreement that the Philadelphia city commissioners, the three officials who run elections, will vote on Thursday. The $10 million would be a massive jolt for an office operating on a $12.3 million budget.

The money would come from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is also giving $2.2 million in election funding to Delaware County and millions more to other jurisdictions. It would be spread among various needs, according to the agreement posted online Wednesday, including $5.5 million for mail ballot processing equipment and $2.3 million to set up and staff 15 satellite offices.

“The City of Philadelphia faces significant challenges in executing the November 3, 2020 general election,” deputy commissioner Nick Custodio, who works under commissioners chair Lisa Deeley, wrote in the city’s funding request to the nonprofit group earlier this month. “As the June 2 primary revealed, in November the city will essentially have to run two elections, at the same time, on an unprecedented scale: one via absentee and mail-in ballots; and a second at in-person polling places.”

For voters, the most visible changes will be the satellite elections offices and drop boxes. They are extensions of the commissioners’ two main offices (one is in City Hall) and would allow voters to cast ballots in person in the weeks ahead of Election Day by requesting, receiving, filling out, and submitting a mail ballot in one visit. People would also be able to register to vote in the offices, or to update their registration information.

» READ MORE: Philly and the suburbs want to set up extra election offices for a new kind of early voting

The drop boxes would allow voters to hand-deliver their mail ballots, bypassing the U.S. Postal Service and any mail delivery concerns. The drop boxes would be available 24 hours a day, monitored by video surveillance, and emptied regularly.

Pennsylvania officials have struggled this year to implement major elections changes — this is the first year any voter can vote by mail — while responding to a series of challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Elections offices in Philadelphia and elsewhere were overwhelmed by a deluge of mail ballot requests, and had to call on other government offices for staffing help as they took days to process applications and mail out ballots.

In-person voting was also difficult to pull off, with poll workers dropping out due to COVID-19 exposure fears and locations declining to serve as polling places. In the end, Philadelphia had 77% fewer polling places in the primary than in the previous election. Counting votes also took longer than many had expected, with the city at one point pausing the count for several days to check data and prevent double-voting.

Altogether, the primary was a stress test that showed several areas for improvement, officials, advocates, and experts said.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s nightmare 2020 voting scenario — and how to prevent it

That’s where the $10 million comes in, along with some existing federal coronavirus relief money.

The bulk of it will go to buying new ballot processing equipment that “will be critical to efficiently and accurately manage hundreds of thousands of ballot envelopes and ballots” before Election Day and “help report results faster” afterward, according to the city’s request.

Officials also plan to buy various machines to automatically sort ballots to make things easier for the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service, organize them by precinct when they are returned, update voter histories, open and remove ballots to be counted, and scan them to tally their votes.

If purchased, that equipment would allow Philadelphia elections officials to more quickly send ballots out once voters request them and to count them, helping reduce the chances of a nightmare scenario where the city is the target of false claims of election interference and legal battles as it slowly counts ballots.

» READ MORE: Want to know who won the presidential race on election night? Get ready to wait.

One of the biggest benefits of receiving grant funding is that it allows elections officials to move forward with plans that would otherwise be on hold due to significant uncertainty around the rules of the election. There are several lawsuits over how votes can be cast and counted, along with ongoing legislative negotiations to change election law.

“Because I’m not using taxpayer dollars for a lot of these initiatives, I can be more aggressive than maybe some of the other counties can,” said Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther.

The county’s $2.2 million grant will go toward setting up satellite elections offices and “pop up” voting sites, hazard pay for poll workers, drop boxes, and mail ballot processing equipment.

“I do not want people to be disenfranchised because we hesitated,” Reuther said of the uncertainty around drop boxes and other elements of the election. “If we have to change directions because the law changes or because of a court order, we will do that. But I do not want to make assumptions that would have the consequence of making it harder for people to vote safely.”