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One-fourth of Blair to vote by mail

County receives over 20,000 absentee, mail-in applications

Blair County Director of Elections Sarah Seymour feeds sample ballots during testing of ballot counting equipment on Friday at the Blair County Highway yard. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

HOLLIDAYSBURG — About 13,000 Blair County residents have already voted in Tuesday’s election by taking advantage of mail-in ballot options offered for the first time this year.

What the state touted at the beginning of the year as a way to encourage people to vote became a sought-after option as voters looked for safety during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We had just over 20,000 applications for absentee and mail-in ballots,” county Director of Elections Sarah Seymour said Thursday, two days after the deadline to apply.

That equates to about 25% of Blair County’s registered voters, reported at 80,513 through Oct. 26 based on approved applications.

Pennsylvania voters have embraced voting by mail, according to Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who started last week to encourage voters to return their mailed ballots in person.

It’s a way to guarantee that a ballot arrives in time and that the vote will be counted, Boockvar said.

Seymour said the county has about 10,300 mailed ballots ready for review beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday. That’s when the state permits county election boards to initiate what’s referred to as pre-canvassing, a process that involves opening the mailing envelope, checking the voter’s signature on the inner envelope, then removing and unfolding the ballot.

Seymour said the county will be in a position to start counting votes from the pre-canvassed ballots after the polls close at 8 p.m. She said those votes will be included in the unofficial vote tallies that the county starts generating Tuesday night.

The goal is to count as many votes as possible on Tuesday night, then add to those results as more become available.

With as many as 20,000 voters asking for mailed ballots, she said the pre-canvassing work is expected to continue into Wednesday and Thursday, with vote totals updated as ballots are counted.

While Boockvar has indicated that some counties are planning round-the-clock operations to process and count their mailed ballots, Seymour said Blair County’s board, with help from county employees, are scheduled to work from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Election Day. Starting Wednesday, they will work daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. until finished.

Who’s on the elections board?

The elections board, as of last week, has two new members.

In a year when incumbent commissioners are not running for re-election, the state’s County Code makes them members of the election board.

This year, however, county Controller A.C. Stickel is going to take the elections board seat held by Commissioner Bruce Erb and county Veterans Affairs Director Craig Swineford will take the seat held by Commissioner Amy Webster.

Webster announced the change when commissioners met Wednesday, explaining that both she and Erb have out-of-state travel plans subjecting each to quarantine recommendations.

The state recommends residents observe quarantine periods after traveling to select states, based on the amount of COVID-19 cases. It’s a measure the state advocates as a way to lessen the possible transmission and spread of COVID-19.

In light of the proposed travel and how it would interfere with the election board tasks, solicitor Nathan Karn prepared a petition for President Judge Elizabeth Doyle to consider, with the recommended replacements, which she approved.

Because both Erb and Webster are Republicans, their replacements on the election board are also Republicans.

Laura Burke is the Democratic commissioner on the county elections board.

Has registration increased?

Blair County has added about 5,000 registered voters for the Nov. 3 general election, available figures show.

For the June 2 primary, Blair County’s registration numbers were reported to include 44,635 Republicans, 21,667 Democrats and 9,233 registered with a minority party or no party affiliation.

For the Nov. 3 election, the county’s last available numbers were reported to include 48,505 Republicans, 22,063 Democrats and 9,945 registered with a minority party or no party affiliation.

The county’s voter registration total is higher than it was four years ago, at 77,834, for the 2016 presidential election, when voters were deciding between Republican candidate Donald Trump, who won, and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The county’s voter registration, however, is lower than it was in 2012, when 85,324 voters had a choice between Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama, who won. Mirror records indicate that the county undertook a purge between 2012 and 2016, when it removed voters who failed to cast ballots in two consecutive federal elections.

Safety in voting

For voter issues that surface on Tuesday that cannot be addressed by those in charge of a poll, the county court system will be staffed from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the courthouse and available to render assistance, President Judge Elizabeth Doyle said.

In prior years, Election Day issues that surfaced inside the county have generally involved voter registration issues. Those were typically resolved at the poll, Doyle said, by permitting the voter to cast a provisional ballot subject to further review.

This year, with the national presidential contest generating accusations of voter fraud and warnings of voter intimidation, state leaders and state organizations have urged voters to report any activity or conduct, inside or outside a voting poll, which disrupts or interferes with their right to cast a ballot.

Election poll workers will be enforcing the typical rules, Seymour said.

That means no more than 10 voters in a voting precinct at one time. It also means no wearing of campaign apparel while inside the poll.

Because of COVID-19, voters are also being advised to maintain social distancing while waiting to vote. The county is also providing polls with hand sanitizer and masks to offer to the voters.

Doyle said she believes local residents have a high level of trust in the personnel who manage their local polls and the ballot-counting process.

“The election officials here have always run straight, free and fair elections,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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