For many months, Pennsylvania has been gearing up for a tumultuous primary election.
And that was before a global pandemic hit, several counties more than halved their numbers of polling places, protests sprang up across the state in response to George Floyd’s death in police custody and those protests turned, in some cases, into violent clashes with armies of police in riot gear.
Among other things, Philadelphia has called in the National Guard, shut down its public transit in Center City and instituted 6 p.m. citywide curfews on Sunday and Monday. The Guard is also in place in Montgomery County, and is on standby in other areas of the commonwealth.
This has put city, county and state officials in an awkward position: urging Pennsylvanians to turn out to exercise their civic duty, while simultaneously trying to quell unrest by, among other things, inhibiting movement.
“We all recognize that we are having an election in very challenging times,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said. “If you have any issues tomorrow at the polls, if you’re unsure of where your polling place is located, you can call our office.”
The number for confused or concerned Philly voters is 215-686-1590.
Mail-in ballot deadline extended in six counties
As protests grew on Monday for the third day in a row, Gov. Tom Wolf — in a major, last-minute step — issued an executive order extending the mail-in ballot deadline for seven days after the election, but only in six counties. It applies to Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Erie, Allegheny and Dauphin counties.
“I can’t do anything about the Election Day,” he said in an ad hoc press conference outside U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans’ Philadelphia office. “But I am extending the time to actually get votes in. If you vote, and the vote gets in by … Tuesday the 9th of June, it will count.”
The counties included in Wolf’s announcement have all seen large protests, as well as looting, vandalism and acrimonious clashes with police. The governor issued a disaster emergency declaration for those counties on Saturday, on top of an existing, statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration, “in response to civil unrest to provide all necessary assistance to the municipalities.”
In a press release that followed Wolf’s initial announcement, his office wrote that in addition to a high volume of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, the six counties named in the order are under “curfews, travel restrictions and other unforeseen circumstances [that] have made returning ballots more difficult.”
Wolf’s announcement also came after self-described good government group Keystone Votes had urged the state to reopen its mail-in voting process, arguing that “government responses to protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death could affect access to in-person voting.”
In a press release, organizers added that “people of color and low-income Pennsylvanians are disproportionately affected. Polling place consolidations in many of the state’s most heavily populated areas compound problems that could disenfranchise voters of color.”
Which way will Pa. vote?
Philadelphia tries to prepare
In a press conference with Deeley and other Philadelphia officials on Monday, District Attorney Larry Krasner said he’s received a lot of inquiries from voters worried that if a curfew is in place on Tuesday, they’ll get in trouble if they violate it by voting.
“No curfew is going to interfere with the right of any voter to go to the polls, to remain at the polls and to return from the polls safely,” he said. “Please don’t let these circumstances dissuade you from exercising your sacred right to vote.”
He said the DA’s Office and other city agencies are all “on the same page” on this point.
Krasner also sought to assuage concerns that police might intimidate would-be voters from approaching polling places. Officers, he said, are prohibited under Pennsylvania law from being within 100 feet of a polling place, unless they’re specifically called there to quell some kind of disturbance.
Deeley added that if there are, in fact, disturbances that render polling places inoperable, the city is working with the Pennsylvania Department of State to come up with contingency plans. She declined to say what those plans might be, and said they’d only be rolled out if necessary.
A Department of State spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information.
David Thornburgh, who heads the election watchdog group the Committee of Seventy, said even before the events of the last few months, he was expecting relatively low turnout. With the presidential primary decided well before Pennsylvania’s election, he noted, there were few “marquee” races left.
“With each succeeding wave of anxiety and concern — pandemic, civil unrest — you chip away a few percentage points,” Thornburgh said. “So it’s probably going to be an even lower-turnout election, which is not good for democracy.”
He’s not the only one thinking along those lines. Even prior to the wave of civil unrest, Philadelphia political leaders were anticipating a steep dropoff at the polls.
Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady said the limited number of polling locations and fears over spreading the new coronavirus were a recipe for low turnout. In past elections, Brady’s ward in Philadelphia’s Overbrook section boasted 42 polling locations. Then, after city election officials slashed locations citywide by nearly 80% in response to the pandemic, it dropped to just five locations.
“I don’t think many people are gonna come out,” Brady said Saturday. “I’m telling my committee people: There’s no reason to go to the polls.”
But Brady also criticized the mail-in ballot process, which he called discriminatory against older voters. He said he pushed to allow for dropoff of mail-in ballots at local polling places on primary day, instead of at a limited number of sanctioned drop-box locations. But there were legal obstacles, he said.
“Why can’t you take that ballot to poll?” he asked. “You take your ass to the poll, you can’t take your ballot? Take your ballot with your ass.”
Thornburgh estimated that restrictions notwithstanding, around 60 to 70% of votes cast in Philadelphia will be by mail.
That’s only possible thanks to Pennsylvania’s newly-expanded election code, which allows voters to cast ballots by mail without an excuse, and gives them more time to return those ballots.
As far as Thornburgh is concerned, that’s a good thing.
But state and county officials have also periodically raised concerns about the commonwealth’s new election logistics.
County election offices are now dealing with huge increases in the number of mail-in ballots they have to process, and have said for months that the extra work — along with the brand-new voting machines many counties are using for the first time — could slow down results.
Officials could not immediately be reached to respond to Wolf’s last-minute deadline extension, but it will likely give them more time to tally ballots.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Monday that she has been closely in touch with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and will be monitoring protests and other issues “hour by hour.”
“We will absolutely inform the public of any changes as soon as we become aware of any,” she said. “So far, there are no changes that have been identified at this point.”
Philly suburbs predict ‘normal proceedings’
Philadelphia isn’t the only place that has been dealing with unrest on top of existing, pandemic-related election challenges. Protests broke out sporadically across the counties that surround the city and in some cases, became contentious,
In Montgomery County, which saw looting at the King of Prussia Mall, Public Affairs Manager Terresa Harris said that county commissioners “had no concerns about civil unrest at the polling places.”
She said they would operate as planned Tuesday, with no additional precautions.
The same goes for Delaware County. On Sunday, local media outlets reported a large police presence in Upper Darby as businesses were looted and vandalized. But a county spokesperson said that would not affect in-person voting sites set to operate during Tuesday’s primary.
“As of this afternoon, those locations do feel confident that they can have normal proceedings,” said Adrienne Marofsky, Director of Public Relations for Delaware County. She added that law enforcement will be monitoring.
In Bucks County, constables will be monitoring polling sites.
“You can’t really station a police officer inside a polling place, legally,” county spokesperson Larry King noted.
The other issue election officials are bracing for are masks, which are required at polling stations. King said workers there will have additional masks on hand for people who do not have one, and are adding additional measures for residents to cast votes if they cannot, or will not, don a protective mask.
“They’re not going to be denied the right to vote, obviously,” King said.