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

Some of Pennsylvania’s largest counties are planning the creation of satellite elections offices where voters could request and submit a mail ballot on the spot.

A paper ballot is cast at Nether Providence Elementary in Wallingford on June 2.
A paper ballot is cast at Nether Providence Elementary in Wallingford on June 2.Read moreCharles Fox / File Photograph

Voters in the Philadelphia region will soon have a new way to cast their ballots.

Some of Pennsylvania’s largest counties are planning to create satellite election offices, where voters could request and submit a mail ballot on the spot, according to officials. That would provide for the first time a form of in-person early voting that is easily and widely available to all voters in those counties — at a moment when the coronavirus, a surge in voting by mail, and troubling post office delays have cast a shadow on the very process of conducting the 2020 presidential election.

Philadelphia election officials hope to set up 17 such early voting sites, including at their main office at City Hall, if they can secure funding to do so and overcome other hurdles. Montgomery County officials are planning five locations, including at the county government office in Norristown. Delaware County officials have already approved two sites, in Upper Darby and Media, and are likely to approve a third in Chester. They are also hoping to create a portable office that can travel around Delaware County. And Bucks County officials will vote this week on a plan to set up three voting sites at government buildings in Quakertown, Doylestown, and Levittown.

These election offices would allow voters to bypass the various logistical challenges of voting by mail or at the polls, and also make it easier to avoid Election Day crowds while the pandemic has raised fears about traditional in-person voting.

If those counties get their plans off the ground, more than 2.5 million Pennsylvania voters will have the option of visiting a new county election office to cast a ballot in person before Nov. 3.

“These mail-in voting centers allow us to reach a group of people who either won’t vote if they don’t feel safe going to a polling place because of the coronavirus or … they won’t vote because they’re uncomfortable voting by mail,” said Delaware County Councilmember Christine Reuther. “They want that sense of voting in person. This is really about trying to maximize access, trying to maximize safety when voting.”

Chester County said it has no plans to follow suit. Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, has yet to make a decision.

Unlike traditional early voting, in which people use voting machines the same way they would at polling places on Election Day, Pennsylvania’s method uses mail ballots. Under a new Pennsylvania law enacted last year, any voter is allowed to vote by mail. And in addition to requesting a ballot online or through a form in the mail, voters in any county can go to their county election office and request a mail ballot that is printed and given to them there. They can then fill out the ballot and return it immediately.

While the law makes this option available at all county election offices, it may not be feasible for one office to handle a large number of voters, especially in more populous cities and suburbs. So the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has encouraged counties to set up the satellite offices, including in areas that historically see low turnout or long lines.

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

But the implementation of a new voting method comes as officials struggle to pull off one of the most difficult elections in memory. The coronavirus has affected virtually all elements of election administration, including an increase in mail ballot requests that has far exceeded what was expected under the new law. So most counties don’t plan to tout the ballot-on-demand option to voters or to set up satellite sites.

There can be significant technical and logistical hurdles to setting up additional offices. They have to securely connect to the state’s voter registration system, keep a supply of blank ballots or correctly and quickly print there, ensure that ballots are kept secure, and have enough trained staff to process voters and troubleshoot problems.

“It’s much different from just hiring a couple temps and saying, ‘Here’s a computer and here’s a ballot thing, have fun.’ You have to train people,” said Nick Custodio, deputy under Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, who run elections.

Officials in several small- and medium-sized counties said they were not exploring the possibility of setting up satellite offices, citing the financial and logistical challenges. The benefits, they said, may not be worth the costs compared with larger, denser counties.

Custodio said Philadelphia’s satellite offices would cost more than $100,000 each to equip and run meaning it would cost more than $1.5 million for the 15 locations the city commissioners are hoping to set up in addition to their existing two offices.

“It’s not like you just pop a tent and get it there, because then you just create yourself a backdoor into the state’s voter registration system,” Custodio said. “So you still want to make sure that [you do] all of these things you’re doing to maintain your security against bad actors.”

Other counties have it easier.

“Bucks County is fortunate: We have government service centers that already brick-and-mortar exist,” said Gail Humphrey, the county’s chief clerk. “The infrastructure’s already there, I just need to throw a server, a human, and a printer in it.”

Similarly, Reuther said, Delaware County’s already approved sites will be in government buildings with existing infrastructure. A third location is still being planned. The county is also considering a unique pop-up method in which staff would set up equipment in locations such as schools, libraries, and community centers. They would be available by appointment.

“The areas of the county we would be targeting are areas where we saw either low utilization of mail-in voting or where people had a lot of difficulty leaving their communities to get to the polls, and I’m thinking specifically a lot of our senior communities,” Reuther said.

Delaware County, like some others, is pursuing funding from nonprofit groups to supplement whatever local, state, and federal money will be available.

Before the pandemic, Montgomery County had planned to set up on-demand mail voting in the main elections office in Norristown for the primary, said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer and chief clerk. Now he’s trying to set up the Norristown office and four others.

The four satellite offices are likely to be available only on weekends, Soltysiak said, because the buildings are in use during the week and wouldn’t have enough space to allow for social distancing.

“Pennsylvania finally started to catch up with the times to make more of these voting options available,” Soltysiak said. “And I think it’s incumbent upon all of us as election officials to make them available.”