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Philadelphia’s early voting plans keep getting scaled back

Philadelphia was supposed to have 17 sites by now for a new form of in-person early voting in Pennsylvania that uses mail ballots. But that plan has been repeatedly scaled back.

The city commissioners’ main office in City Hall was one of the first seven "early voting" offices opened in Philadelphia. The others have been slowly rolling out due to staffing shortages.
The city commissioners’ main office in City Hall was one of the first seven "early voting" offices opened in Philadelphia. The others have been slowly rolling out due to staffing shortages.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia was going to have 17 sites by now for a new form of in-person early voting in Pennsylvania that uses mail ballots, something the city’s top elections official touted as a months-long “tremendous effort" when she announced a plan to open all 17 on Sept. 29.

But that plan has been repeatedly scaled back.

Because of staffing shortages, the city commissioners — the three independently elected officials who run elections — never actually approved the plan to open all 17 locations at once. Last month, City Commissioner Al Schmidt put those staffing shortages squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration.

“As we approach the homestretch toward Election Day, it will be incumbent upon the administration to provide the resources and the staff needed for this election to be successful,” Schmidt said when he approved the slower rollout of the sites. “The number of satellite election offices that open, how quickly we can process the mail-in ballot applications, and how quickly we can count those ballots after Election Day is directly correlated to the amount of staff made available to us by the administration.”

Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff, said this week that the administration has “been working very, very closely with the city commissioners for months” and provided staff to help. The city has helped the commissioners hire temporary workers to open the satellite offices. Staffers had also been temporarily assigned to help process ballot applications and will be working on Election Day, he said. And Stephanie Reid, who ran the city’s 2020 Census efforts, has been assigned to run the satellite offices.

“So we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that this election is successful,” Engler said.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about in-person and mail voting in Pennsylvania

He didn’t say why more city workers weren’t assigned to work at the satellite elections offices the commissioners have struggled to staff.

It’s unclear why the commissioners didn’t hire temporary workers earlier — they declined to respond to that question — and whether or when the administration told the commissioners more staffing for satellite offices wouldn’t be coming.

But after a version of this article was published on Thursday, Schmidt said he was “nothing but grateful” for the assistance from the administration.

“The administration has really stepped up, and it’s helped us with hundreds of staff to process registrations, to process mail-in applications, to staff our satellite offices," he said. “We’re a small department and we need all the help we can get, and they have sent people from all over the administration to help us out.”

The evolving messaging underscored the complicated politics of the moment for the commissioners and the Kenney administration, both trying to present a united front as they prepare for an election in which President Donald Trump has falsely targeted Philadelphia as a place where votes will be stolen from him.

“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump said during the first presidential debate late last month.

» READ MORE: Trump has put Philly on the front lines of his attack on voting

In an unsigned statement Thursday, the commissioners said they could always use more resources but expected to have enough to successfully run the election “with fairness, integrity, and accurate and timely results.” That statement said the other satellite offices will open in “the days ahead."

”Voters should have confidence that they will be able to access these options to exercise their right to vote, that no one will unlawfully interfere with their right to do so, and that all ballots properly cast will be counted," the statement said.

Only seven locations opened on Sept. 29. An eighth opened a week-and-a-half later, and a ninth and 10th opened for full service this week. An 11th is slated to open Saturday, while a 12th site opened this week only as a drop-off site, not a full-service election office.

The remaining locations haven’t yet opened, and elections officials have authorized reducing their hours or services to get them open. They’ve even discussed closing some locations, or not opening others.

All 17 locations won’t be fully open until at least next week — two weeks before Election Day.

“If we don’t have enough people, we’re going to have to shorten the hours or potentially close the satellite locations, and we don’t want to do that,” Omar Sabir, one of the commissioners, said in an interview last week.

The commissioners had worked for months to open 17 locations, including applying for a $10 million grant that would help cover the costs.

On Sept. 18, Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners, had announced a plan to open all of them Sept. 29. But at a meeting five days later, Deeley proposed a phased rollout of the sites.

» READ MORE: Trump is making the 2020 election a recipe for chaos. How Philly is preparing.

Throughout the planning, elections officials had expected the Kenney administration would send them workers, reassigning people from other parts of city government. Those workers would be trained to work the elections offices, including processing voter registrations and mail ballot applications. (While the commissioners hire temporary workers every election, they generally prefer to use them for lower-stakes jobs such as opening and sorting envelopes.)

That help never arrived.

Instead, the commissioners last week scaled back the plan even further. If they can’t fully staff the remaining sites, they said, they might open them at decreased operating hours or even reduce their services, such as opening them only as ballot drop-off sites.

“It is not a money issue. It is a people issue,” Deeley said last week.

The commissioners last week posted a help-wanted ad on their website, calling for workers “to help staff and open satellite election offices, hiring immediately.” One of the requirements: applicants must be willing to work full-time.

“It’s very important that we get these people soon as we possibly can," Sabir said. "We want to keep these locations open seven days a week and also we want to make those locations stay open for longer hours, and open up at earlier times, so that we can serve the people.”

-Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.