This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
Officials and experts in Pennsylvania are confident that new technology and growing familiarity with mail ballots among poll workers will make for smooth sailing during the upcoming Nov. 7 election.
On the ballot are critical appellate court races as well as ones for county-level and municipal positions. Odd-year elections like this one tend to see lower turnout. That makes the odds of long polling place lines and overloaded, sluggish ballot counting much lower.
As of Friday morning, the Department of State had received more than 998,453 requests for mail ballots — up from the roughly 960,000 requests it received in total for 2021, the previous odd-year election.
During the 2020 election, the commonwealth implemented widespread mail voting for the first time while dealing with pandemic-induced postal delays and intense national attention. Since then, many of the kinks have been worked out.
The 2020 experience is “something that hopefully we’ll never have to go through again,” said Jeff Greenburg, a former Mercer County election director who now works as an advisor for the good government group Committee of Seventy.
“Counties have adjusted,” Greenburg said, noting that many of those adjustments have been technical. “They know the amount of space they need to count in-person and mail ballots. They’ve purchased openers and slicers and sorters. And that was huge. None of us had that in 2020. Everything was done by hand.”
In 2020, it took some counties including Philadelphia days to finish counting mail ballots, leading to long waits for unofficial election results. A big cause of the wait was the legislature’s failure to give officials time ahead of Election Day to begin processing mail ballots, and gave former President Donald Trump a window to spread misinformation claiming a stolen election.
Lawmakers have yet to give counties additional time to process mail ballots. But thanks to other adjustments, Nick Custodio — spokesperson for the city’s commissioners, who run the elections — said this year Philadelphia is anticipating that results will begin appearing online as soon as polls close at 8 p.m.
Whether races can be called that night depends, as always, on how close they are. Counties don’t finish counting every ballot until days after the election — military ballots from overseas are allowed to be accepted after the election, and counties often need more time to check provisional ballots, which are often cast when it’s unclear if a voter is eligible.
But Custodio predicted a speedy resolution.
“We’ll have the vast majority of ballots [counted] by the time polls close,” he said.
There have been some scattered issues in the lead-up to Election Day.
Several counties this year have had ballot printing problems. Lancaster, for instance, mistakenly directed mail voters to put their ballot in a white secrecy envelope, instead of the yellow one the ballot came with. In some wards in Wilkes-Barre, in Luzerne County, a data issue led about 1,500 people to receive ballots with the wrong local races on them. York County accidentally sent duplicate ballots to 400 or so voters.
Mistakes like these aren’t malicious, Greenburg said, and they’re relatively rare. But he added that mail voters should always keep an eye on their mail for corrections or warnings from counties about ballot problems, just in case.
In cases like this, counties almost always send a replacement ballot or instructions to correct a possible error, he said: “My fear, though, is that once a voter has submitted a ballot already, they may get another mailing and disregard it as junk mail.”
More pollbooks, no last-minute election advice
Ahead of Election Day, Pennsylvania has made a few changes that affect registration and the in-person voting experience.
The state recently implemented a form of automatic voter registration through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. When qualified people obtain a driver’s license, they are now prompted to opt out of registering to vote, instead of having to opt in.
Secretary of State Al Schmidt said at a press conference this month that the change seems to have led to a boost in registrations this year.
Since Sept. 19, Schmidt said the commonwealth had received more than 11,000 new voter registrations. In the same period in 2021, he said there were about 7,000.
Counties are also increasingly piloting electronic pollbooks, a piece of technology that is becoming more common around the country but has remained rare in Pennsylvania.
For voters, the change means signing in at in-person polling places using a tablet, rather than a paper booklet.
Behind the scenes, the differences are much bigger. With paper pollbooks, election workers have to print out reams of sign-in sheets weeks ahead of time and add supplements if new voters register close to the deadline. It’s also time-consuming to perform pollbook reconciliation using paper — the process involves scanning the barcode next to every eligible voter’s name into the commonwealth’s SURE system, to ensure nobody double-voted.
According to DOS, 19 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties are currently using electronic pollbooks including Philadelphia.
The city launched electronic pollbooks during this year’s May primary. A previous effort, in 2019, was temporarily abandoned due to technical issues.
“We were able to run ballot security checks [pollbook reconciliation] much faster than with the paper pollbooks,” Custodio said.
Another process change came directly from the Department of State. Schmidt, the first-year department secretary and former Philadelphia city commissioner, said he will not hand down new guidance to counties within 45 days of an election, unless a last-minute court ruling or some other unavoidable change makes it necessary.
This came up repeatedly in 2020, a year in which voters’ and election workers’ lack of familiarity with mail ballots led to errors and confusion. At one point, the then-secretary of state instructed counties to notify voters of ballot mistakes and have them vote by provisional ballot instead, so their votes could still be counted. It was one of the examples Republicans later raised in their attempts to delay certification of the election.
Last-minute advice, Schmidt said at a recent press conference, “was a real frustration for me while running elections.”
Looming over 2023 is the much larger, higher-pressure 2024 presidential election, which will also feature races for U.S. Senate, Pennsylvania’s three row offices, and the state House and Senate.
Election officials on the state and county level said they don’t see this year’s election as practice; with their radically different turnout and numbers of races on the ballot, the two kinds of elections are just too different.
“We’ve been preparing for 2024 since the day after the 2020 general election,” Custodio said. “We have never stopped planning. We don’t see any one election as a dry run. It’s its own special thing.”
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