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Improving election night process

Blair County commissioners offer suggestions

Editor’s note: This commentary was written by Blair County commissioners Laura Burke, Bruce Erb and Amy Webster.

As the Blair County Board of Elections, we always knew that the first election after the passage of Act 77, allowing no excuse mail-in voting, would be much different than the norm.

However, we had no idea until March that COVID-19 would vastly impact not only the number of mail-in ballots cast, but also the number of polls that needed to be moved, the number of poll workers available and the need for sneeze guards and personal protective equipment at the polls.

In the June 2 primary, 10,211 Blair County residents chose to cast their votes using mail-in or absentee ballots.

These ballots were all returned either by mail or in person to the courthouse where county employees verified that one ballot per voter was returned. With the supervision of the board of elections, county workers painstakingly reviewed each outer envelope, verified that each was properly signed, that the person returning the ballot had indeed requested a mail-in and verified that the person returning the ballot had not voted at the polls.

This election was secure and efficient as possible.

With this experience behind us, we have turned our sights on planning for the general election in November. We expect twice as many mail-in ballots. We are doing several things to make sure that we are as efficient in November as we were in June.

First, we will work with the salary board to provide additional personnel to the elections office further in advance so that they can keep up with the influx of mail-in ballot applications and maintain a high degree of accuracy in processing them.

Second, we are increasing our monitoring of the office’s progress in keeping up with the applications to ensure that we are able to add additional personnel if needed.

Third, we have reviewed the process we used to track and prepare ballots for counting in June and have developed a plan that will enable us to count more ballots in the same amount of time. Our experience in June has allowed us to find ways of improving.

There are several things our state Legislature could do to help all counties, including Blair, efficiently and accurately process mail-ins and to help the public have confidence in the system.

We urge our state representatives and state senator to consider the following amendments to Act 77:

— Increase the time frame between the last day to request a mail-in ballot and election day so that the elections office receives the applications, processes them and returns a ballot to each voter who requests one in sufficient time for them to return that ballot prior to election day.

— Extend the time in which the board of elections can pre-canvass mail-in ballots. This does not mean counting votes ahead of time: It merely allows the board to begin verifying the ballots received are valid and appropriate to be counted and prepare the ballots for scanning by unfolding and flattening them. If a large proportion of voters vote by mail and return their ballots early in the process, more time for pre-canvassing could mean that a larger percentage of results are available on election night.

— Compel the Department of State to certify ballots in a timely manner so that our ballots can be printed and mailed further in advance and reach the voters in ample time to be returned by mail.

— Disallow address changes in between the time a voter requests their ballot and election day to ensure that voters receive the correct ballot and vote in the correct precinct.

— Finally, for primary elections, align the deadline to request a mail-in ballot with the deadline to change party affiliation so that the voter receives the correct ballot.

These relatively simple changes would greatly increase the ability of the county’s elections office to timely and accurately fulfill requests for mail-in ballots, improve the ability of the board of elections to count a larger percentage of the votes on election night and improve the efficiency of the board of elections in canvassing the mail-in ballots by removing some of the common issues we saw in the primary.

As we look toward November’s election, we hope all Blair County residents who are eligible to vote will register and know that our dedicated voter registration and elections staff are working hard to make sure your votes count and that we have a free and fair election here in Blair County.

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