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The start of early voting in Philly was riddled with technical issues

The much anticipated debut of early voting got off to a rocky start, leaving voters frustrated and confused while they waited on line unable to cast their ballots.

Priscilla Bennett prepares to cast her mail ballot at a new satellite elections office at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Priscilla Bennett prepares to cast her mail ballot at a new satellite elections office at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The much-anticipated debut of early voting got off to a rocky start in Philadelphia on Tuesday, as technical issues left voters frustrated and confused while they waited in line, unable to cast their ballots.

Philadelphia opened the first seven of 15 satellite elections offices, where voters can request, receive, fill out, and submit a mail ballot in one stop.

“It’s a mail-in vote without having to use the mail,” Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners, said at a morning news conference outside the Liacouras Center at Temple University, where one of the new offices is located. The others are in public schools.

But moments later, problems delayed the opening of the satellite sites to the public, keeping two dozen voters lined up outside the Liacouras Center. Theresa Thomas of North Philadelphia was the first voter in line. But after waiting about an hour, Thomas, 56, was exasperated.

“Why am I still sitting here?” she said. “They might as well give me a job.”

Nick Custodio, a deputy commissioner under Deeley, said the delay was caused by the state’s voter database going down, which meant workers were unable to look up voters, process and approve mail ballot applications, and print ballot materials.

By 12:45 p.m., six of the seven satellite sites were up and running, Custodio said. Thomas, who was in line well before the 11:30 a.m. scheduled opening, cast her ballot shortly after 1 p.m. She said it was worth the wait.

“We need to come out here and vote no matter what it takes,” she said.

County elections officials across Pennsylvania said the state’s voter database, known as SURE, was down throughout the morning. They regularly complain that the system, put in place in the early 2000s and run by the Pennsylvania Department of State, often goes offline or slows down, especially under heavy traffic.

“This is the first time that anything like this has been attempted in the city of Philadelphia, and it’s the largest setup in the state of Pennsylvania,” Custodio said. “It’s running on an older infrastructure, and we’re asking for patience as we work out the initial complications.”

» READ MORE: Philly is opening 17 early voting locations across the city. Here’s where.

This is the first year any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail, and election law now also requires counties to provide mail ballots on demand to voters who request them in person. That allows for a kind of in-person early voting, and the state has encouraged counties to open satellite offices to make it easier to vote early.

The voting starts as polls consistently show Democratic nominee Joe Biden holding a strong lead nationally, and a smaller but steady edge in Pennsylvania, one of a handful of states likely to decide the outcome of the contest between him and President Donald Trump.

Mayor Jim Kenney said the new voting locations would be important for residents who have health conditions or cannot access the internet to apply for a mail ballot. He expressed confidence the early technical issues would be sorted out.

Omar Sabir, another city commissioner, said the elections office’s budget only allowed for limited communication to the public about the satellite offices. He said he wishes the office had the funding to run ads on TVs, buses, and billboards, which could have helped clear up confusion.

“We never had the appropriate resources in regards with communications,” he said.

Priscilla Bennett of North Philadelphia cast the first mail vote at the Liacouras Center with city elections officials. In a matter of minutes, Bennett submitted an application for a mail ballot, had it processed and printed by election workers, and then filled out and submitted her vote.

Asked who she voted for in a city where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, she said: “You know it wasn’t Trump, right?”

“We can’t have four more years of this foolishness that he continues to amplify,” Bennett, a teacher, said.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania, by mail or in person

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke also cast a mail ballot Tuesday morning at the Liacouras Center.

“We are preparing for lines, but are hoping that the voters of Philadelphia will be patient,” Deeley said of the new locations.

The 15 temporary satellite offices are in addition to the two permanent elections offices, one in City Hall and one on Columbus Boulevard at Spring Garden Street. The first opened Tuesday, and the main office in City Hall also began allowing this type of in-person mail voting. The remaining locations will be opened in stages.

The offices will be open seven days a week running through Election Day on Nov. 3, from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. People can also visit them to register to vote, request a mail ballot to take home and submit later, or drop off a completed mail ballot.

Mail ballots must be requested by one week before Election Day, so in that final week, the offices can be used to drop off completed ballots, but not to apply for one. Several suburban counties, as well as Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs, are also planning to open multiple early voting sites.

Geneva Corprew, 91, waited for almost two hours to vote at a satellite location in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Overbrook Park, housed inside a portable trailer in the parking lot of Overbrook Elementary School. The lifelong Overbrook resident arrived with her 62-year-old son, Barry Corprew, before 11 a.m.

“They needed to get all of this hashed out before the voters got here,” Barry Corprew said. “I just want to vote and get out of here.”

Barry Corprew eventually left in frustration — he had to get home and back to work. His mother took a seat inside to wait. Finally, at about 12:45 p.m., she exited the trailer and let out a deep breath: She had officially voted.

“I’m so glad it’s over,” she said outside the elementary school her children attended. Between the pandemic and Trump’s false attack on mail voting, Corprew said, she didn’t want to risk sending her ballot through the mail.

Many voters couldn’t wait that long, and left angry. Others arrived confused over what the satellite office was for — many assumed it was like any other polling place with voting machines.

“This is not like Election Day,” one worker repeated to voters. Many people who had already requested mail ballots, but had not received them yet, also arrived assuming they could get a ballot and vote. But they were turned away and told to wait for their ballot to arrive, or return next Tuesday if it had not come by then.

Such was the case for Gwen Brown, 68, of Overbrook. She said she will wait for her ballot to arrive at home, and then submit it at the satellite office in person.

“It’s a little confusing,” she said. “But I understand this is a new era.”

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.