Voting by mail is supposed to help Pennsylvanians like Suzanne Matthiessen, a 64-year-old with asthma, stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. But, since receiving her ballot in early October, she has left it on her desk, unopened.
She plans to turn over that ballot to election officials at the polls Tuesday and vote in person. She said she is worried about making sure her vote counts in a critical swing state.
“Just watching what was happening, what Trump was saying, I thought ‘I don’t want to mess around with this. I want my vote to count on Election Day,’ ” said Matthiessen, a registered Independent in Mercer County, one of the handful of counties in Pennsylvania that have said they won’t begin counting mail ballots until Wednesday. “Knowing it is going to be counted that day, that is the most important thing.”
Other Pennsylvanians have made similar decisions, at first fearful their vote would not arrive on time if mailed, and now nervous President Donald Trump will declare victory before all the votes are counted. But Pennsylvania officials warn that people trading in their mail ballots to vote on a machine could lengthen the lines and the amount of time it takes to cast votes.
“The injury is that you’re potentially slowing down voting,” Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of three city commissioners who run Philadelphia elections told The Inquirer two weeks ago. These voters are “adding to the line, and to the work the election boards need to do to get voters voting.”
Voters who requested an absentee ballot can still vote in person by turning over their mail-in ballots and envelopes and have them voided before voting on a machine. If voters don’t hand over all those materials at the polls, they can fill out a provisional ballot, which is a paper ballot that’s not counted until elections officials confirm the vote should be accepted.
Kairol Rosenthal, the cofounder of Fairmount Votes, a nonpartisan volunteer get-out-the vote effort in Philadelphia, understands the anxiety about votes being counted, but she is also worried about how these decisions will lengthen lines and hurt turnout. Her organization has fielded questions from voters who received mail ballots wanting to switch in person, and has reassured them that putting the absentee ballot in a drop box directly is the safest, most efficient way to vote this election.
“The longer the line is," Rosenthal said, “the more people will have to get out of line because they have kids at home or they’re essential workers.”
Still, many voters are fearful about how Trump will react. He has repeatedly attacked mail-in voting with false accusations of fraud, especially in Pennsylvania, refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and insisted the election should be called on Tuesday.
It is likely early returns will favor Trump, as Democrats have been voting more heavily by mail, and those ballots won’t be fully counted until later in the week. This "blue shift” phenomenon, these voters said, could lead to Trump prematurely declaring a victory and, as the election narrows, peddle falsehoods about the validity of absentee ballots.
Almost 3.1 million Pennsylvania voters have submitted applications for mail ballots, and about 2.4 million have returned them to county elections offices, according to state data. Democrats have requested and returned a majority of those applications.
“I just want my ballot counted that day,” said Dan Parvu, 41, a registered Democrat who lives in Point Breeze and who plans to surrender his mail ballot to vote in person for Joe Biden. “I don’t want it to wait three days. I want to make sure there is no chance of [Trump] declaring a win in Pennsylvania the night of the election.”
Michelle Williams, 56, is a registered Democrat in Washington County, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and requested an absentee ballot for this election when she voted by mail in the primary.
At the time, she was expecting a fall wave of coronavirus cases, and wanted to be safe. But Trump’s false claims about voter fraud and the potential role courts may play in deciding this election have changed her mind.
Walter Moyer, 57, of Roxborough, who is not affiliated, had an aortic valve replacement two years ago and is nervous about being in public places during the coronavirus pandemic. He planned to vote by mail, but is nervous about his vote counting. He plans to bring a stool to the polls and wait in line as long as it takes to cast his ballot in person.
“I wanted to make sure my vote counted,” Moyer said, “Voting might be more important this election than the risk of COVID.”
Anna Yanisko, a nurse at an Allentown hospital, has seen COVID-19 force patients on ventilators for weeks, cause blood clots that result in kidney failure and continuous dialysis, and has watched patients die alone. She requested a mail ballot over the summer because she wasn’t sure if the polls would be safe.
“At that point in time, I was trying to do the smart thing, be responsible and try to limit foot traffic at the polls,” Yanisko, a 28-year-old Democrat registered in Montgomery County. “I didn’t realize how much mistrust there would be deliberately being sowed in mail-in voting.”
She followed the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings and said she is unnerved that three current Supreme Court justices, Barrett, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., worked for Republicans in the 2000 Florida recount fight that ended with the historic Bush v. Gore decision. She is now planning to turn over her ballot and vote in person.
“I think it’s really important for Biden to have a landslide victory,” Yanisko said, “because if there is any question, or any kind of close call it’s going to be ugly.”