Pennsylvania's primary elections are coming up fast on Tuesday, April 28th, and nobody can say with any certainty that the need for physical distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic will abate by then.
Rep. Kevin Boyle has responded to this situation by introducing a bill—HB 2637—that would lean on Pennsylvania's new vote-by-mail system and automatically send all PA voters a Vote-by-Mail ballot for both the primary and general elections.
And now, Governor Tom Wolf is floating the possibility of postponing the PA primary to a later unspecified date after huddling with election officials this week. Jonathan Lai says that in addition to the need for physical distancing, county officials are also sounding the alarms about the usual polling sites and election workers potentially sitting this one out.
In addition to concerns around the spread of the virus, officials worry that some locations that normally act as polling places may be unwilling to do so this year, and that poll workers — who tend to be older and thus more vulnerable — may not want to work on election day.
Forrest Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County, said he hoped the state would also move to an entirely vote-by-mail election to prevent people from gathering at polling places. That could not happen, though, without delaying the election, he said, because his county and others would need time to prepare for a much higher number of mail ballots than currently available.
Wolf had said Saturday that it was “too far out for anyone to make a decision” regarding moving the primary election, but described the option as “on the table.” His focus, he said then, was on ensuring people remain safe.
PA passed a no-excuse vote-by-mail program just a few months ago, and this would be the first election that this is an option for voters. The timing is kind of incredible, since the discussion now is all about how to scale up an existing program, not about whether to do vote-by-mail at all—a much more advantageous position for proponents. At the same time, this being the very first election that we're trying vote-by-mail in understandably has some state and county officials feeling skittish about going all-in on a process they have no experience with yet, in the highest-turnout kind of election year.
Postponing makes sense under the circumstances, especially since counties are going to have to carry out some in-person election activities, and betting that this will all be over by April 28th seems awfully risky. But betting that it'll be over by June is also risky, and that's why it's so important that any delay be twinned with universal vote-by-mail. Vote-by-Mail may be new, but it should still be seen as taking pressure off of the in-person Election Day program, which is going to be the weakest link in any case this year since it isn't just COVID-19-related preparedness we need to consider, but the new voting machines as well, which are expected to create some delays and lines in their first run.
Sign and share this petition to state lawmakers to help raise awareness of this issue, and get HB 2637 passed in time to make a difference for the April 28th election.
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