Philadelphia voters will have 77% fewer polling places than normal when they go to vote in the primary election June 2 because of the coronavirus.
The Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners released a plan Tuesday night to open 190 polling places, down from the 831 used in last November’s municipal election. The commissioners, Philadelphia’s election officials, will vote on the plan Wednesday morning before sending it to the Pennsylvania Department of State for approval. (State officials were consulted in recent days and the plan is likely, if not certain, to be approved.)
“This June 2, election day, it’s not going to look like any election day we have ever seen before,” Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners, said Tuesday. “We are balancing public health with people’s ability to vote. … We’ve limited the number of sites for people to vote in person.”
Like other parts of the country, elections officials in Philadelphia have faced a number of challenges pulling off primary elections during the coronavirus pandemic, including unprecedented shortages of poll workers. Finding suitable polling places has also been difficult, Deeley said, because they need to be able to accommodate large numbers of voters who are spread out for social distancing.
“Nobody’s ever done this before, so there’s no playbook,” she said. “We hope that it is going to be as successful as it could be in the face of all this.”
The challenges are steep.
A dramatic reduction in the number of polling places means voters will have to travel longer distances to cast ballots. It also means congregating more voters into fewer polling places, potentially increasing their contact with others and the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Reducing the number of polling places also significantly increases the likelihood of long lines — if for no other reason than because people will be standing apart from each other — and changing polling place locations always risks confusing voters.
“No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote, so we’re deeply concerned about this reduction in polling places,” said Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director for All Voting Is Local, a voting-rights initiative that is part of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
To minimize voter confusion and avoid potential disenfranchisement, Seeborg said, the city should circulate polling place information as widely as possible and “really do the type of public communication we know Philadelphia can pull off when something is important.”
Because of the pandemic, the state legislature passed an emergency law in March allowing counties to cut the number of polling places by up to 60% without state or court approval. A handful of counties have sought state sign-off to go beyond that.
The suburban counties have taken a range of approaches: Bucks County plans to have the same number of polling places as usual, Chester County will reduce its number by a still-to-be-determined amount, Delaware County will reduce its polling places by 40%, and Montgomery County will cut its number by 60%.
Officials have urged people to vote by mail as a way to avoid the exposure risk of voting in person. This is Pennsylvania’s first election in which all voters are eligible to use absentee ballots, which can be requested online.
Deeley said Philadelphia’s polling locations were picked in part based on the number of absentee ballot requests received from voters in a neighborhood. The fewer the absentee requests, the more likely voters are to show up in person, she said, so assigning more polling places in those areas could help reduce crowding at the polls.
To assign the 190 polling places, the commissioners divided Philadelphia into 190 geographic “zones” made up of precincts. So while the city has 1,703 voting precincts, or divisions, grouped into 66 wards, voters won’t need to know that information this election. Instead, all voters in a zone will vote at the same polling place.