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Virus causes election struggles

State has time to prepare for primary

At least we’re not Wisconsin.

Election authorities in Pennsylvania and the other states where this year’s primaries haven’t happened yet are contending with coronavirus challenges — but they have some time to prepare.

In Wisconsin, by contrast, an election still set for Tuesday was “hurtling toward (the state) like an unstoppable meteor,” with half the poll workers dropping out, no mitigation plan for voters and mail in balloting that included the onerous requirement of a photo ID — though a judge had eliminated the need for a witness signature and had given those ballots an extra six days past election day to arrive, said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, in a conference call on Friday.

Originally set for April 28, the Pennsylvania primary has been rescheduled to June 2 by legislation signed in late March, which includes an easing of restrictions to help the election go smoothly — complemented by last fall’s elimination of the “excuses” requirement for mail-in voting.

Now, anyone can vote by mail in Pennsylvania “for any reason or no reason at all,” said Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who spoke late last week on a teleconference call.

As of the day of that conference call, 250,000 voters had applied for mail-in or absentee ballots, which will allow them to avoid going to the polls and risking the spread of the infection, Boockvar said.

Everyone not already registered is still required to do that, and the new deadline for the primary is May 18.

The new deadline to apply online or by other means for a mail-in or absentee ballot — which still requires that the applicant be unable to vote in person — is May 26.

The new deadline for returning mail-in or absentee ballots is 8 p.m. election day.

Boockvar advised residents who want to vote remotely to apply now and, when they receive their ballots, to send them in immediately.

If people have already applied for a mail-in or absentee ballot, they don’t need to do it again just because the primary has been postponed.

The department is planning to try to inform voters of the new deadlines and other changes via mail, email, traditional media and social media notifications of the changes that have occurred, Boockvar said.

The department wants to ensure that no voters are disenfranchised, she said.

The changes made in late March due to the COVID crisis include permission for counties to consolidate polling places as necessary to deal with a shortage of election wokers caused by their dropping out due to quarantine or fear of infection. The permission is also necessary because some polling places are located in facilities for seniors, who are highly vulnerable to the virus, according to Boockvar.

Those same changes will also allow polling places to be located in places previously prohibited because they sometimes serve alcohol — but where there’s plenty of space, as in VFW halls and Moose lodges, Boockvar said.

The new law also allows the use of poll workers who aren’t residents of polling place precincts, provided they’re residents of the county in which the precincts are located, Boockvar said.

It also allows clerks to help in multiple precincts, she said.

Additionally, the new law backs up the time for counting mail and absentee ballots from 8 p.m. election day to 7 a.m. that day, allowing for election results to be known sooner than they would be otherwise, given the surge of distance voting, Boockvar said.

She would have liked an amendment to allow government employees to work the polls, but that would require a constitutional change, she said.

Asked whether it makes sense to do entire elections by mail, Boockvar said that can only occur with a gradual transition, to avoid disenfranchisement.

Washington state has voted entirely by mail for years, but its transition took at least five years, to ensure “confidence in enough voter engagement,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, Common Cause is working to educate voters to ensure that polling place consolidations don’t “accidentally or intentionally” disenfranchise those who may have trouble getting to newly assigned polling places because of disability, public transportation problems, multiple jobs and child- and elder-care obligations, said Suzanne Almeida, acting director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

Because of the rapidity of the electoral changes and the “onslaught” of COVID issues, it hasn’t been easy for voter advocates to “get clear instructions out,” Almeida said.

“I expect great confusion and a lot of consternation on election day,” said Heck, of Wisconsin’s election. “I can’t in good conscience advise a person to go (to an actual polling place) to vote.”

“All the problems that Wisconsin is dealing with, other states will be dealing with,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause.

In Pennsylvania, the election efforts need to be done “very carefully” so as not to put public health at risk while also ensuring that people get to exercise their right to vote, Almeida said.

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