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From the archives 2020

Harassment, anger, and misinformation plague Pa. county officials as they struggle to keep 2020 election on track

by Marie Albiges and Tom Lisi for Spotlight PA and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

County election officials across the state say drastic changes to Pennsylvania’s voting laws, a global pandemic, and misinformation surrounding a high-stakes presidential election are all contributing to the high stress they’re feeling as they work overtime leading up to Nov. 3.
Margo Reed / Philadelphia Inquirer

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

On a recent weekday, Forrest Lehman was struggling to run two elections simultaneously — one in person and one by mail.

Hundreds of people stood in line to request a ballot at the Lycoming County elections office, so they could vote right there and hand it back. Nearby, 800 mail ballot applications sat untouched, waiting to be processed so the county could send ballots to voters.

Meanwhile, the phone kept ringing, with callers asking questions the likes of which Lehman had never heard before.

“We can’t get anything done,” said Lehman, the county’s director of elections. “People are just so nasty, ugly, distrustful, anxious, and we’re getting the brunt of all that,” he said.

County election officials across the state say drastic changes to Pennsylvania’s voting laws, a global pandemic, and misinformation surrounding a high-stakes presidential election are all contributing to the high stress they’re feeling as they work overtime leading up to Nov. 3.

More than 3 million voters have applied for a mail ballot in the November election after the Pennsylvania legislature approved no-excuse mail-in voting last year. Counties have hired hundreds of temporary workers, invested in new high-speed ballot-processing machines, and put in hours of overtime to handle the record-breaking turnout.

The brunt of their stress, many officials say, stems from the refusal of the Republican-led state legislature to allow counties to pre-canvass mail ballots — which involves opening the two envelopes and scanning the ballot without getting the results — before 7 a.m. on Election Day.

“Counties were on the record asking for time before the election,” said Lehman, whose county has already received 67% of the 15,751 mail ballots voters have requested. “If people want these results faster, they need to lean on their state government.”

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar has said despite not being able to start pre-canvassing until Election Day, she expects the “overwhelming majority” of ballots to be counted by the Friday after the election.

Most of the election directors Spotlight PA spoke with agreed, but said it wouldn’t be easy.

“We are all exhausted and grumpy and miserable,” said Renee Smithkors, the elections director in Bradford County. She said she’s been working 80-hour weeks while getting verbally attacked by people calling about election misinformation.

Now, she’s dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in Bradford — the percent of tests coming back positive is 11.2%, well above what public health experts consider acceptable — with at least one poll worker calling out sick. Smithkors said she’s working to get more emergency ballots to people who have contracted the virus and will need a designee to return their ballots for them.

In Bucks County, the plan is to begin opening ballots at 7 a.m. Election Day by hand and with the help of a high-speed letter opener, then switch some county employees over to scanning those ballots, so that at least some results from mail ballots will be available after the polls close. County election officials plan to start releasing results every 90 minutes starting at around 10 p.m. Nov. 3.

Commissioner Robert Harvie said he expects most of the ballots to be counted by Friday. More than 192,600 people requested a mail ballot, and nearly 60% have been returned as of Thursday.

“Understand that every time we upload the memory sticks from the machines from polling places, we have to stop scanning the paper ballots. They can’t be done simultaneously, it’s not possible,” Harvie said during a press conference earlier this month. “We don’t want to wait too long. We know obviously that Pennsylvania is a battleground state for the presidential election.”

The Nov. 3 election has posed a unique challenge because of a confluence of changes to voting rules and procedures, as well as the pandemic. Even for those who cast ballots in the June primary, some rules have changed since then, and some people will be using their county’s new voting machines, mandated by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018, for the first time.

Many voters are confused and not receiving reliable information, according to Somerset County Director of Elections Tina Pritts. Residents come to the Somerset elections offices to vote early, and don’t realize the process requires them to fill out an application for a mail-in ballot, she said.

“They’re hearing, ‘just go into the elections office and vote,’” Pritts said.

Disinformation is sometimes the enemy in Blair County, where elections director Sarah Seymour said the phones “never stop ringing.”

The county has received calls from voters angry over something they read on social media. Oftentimes, they demand to become poll watchers — and accuse county workers of disenfranchising them when they try to explain the process of becoming a certified poll watcher.

“It takes its toll,” said Seymour.

She said she believed counting mail-in and absentee ballots by the Friday after Election Day was “doable.” The county, she said, has received about 20,600 applications for mail-in and absentee ballots (of which roughly 13,000 had been returned as of mid-week) and will begin processing them at 8 a.m. on Nov. 3.

With fewer than 21,000 registered voters in Elk County, the elections director there, Kimberly Frey, said she expected to have all mail-in ballots scanned by the time polls close. Her office had received 3,452 ballots from the 4,633 sent to voters as of Wednesday.

When it comes to provisional ballots, which voters cast at polls when it’s not clear they’re registered and eligible to vote, Frey said she hopes to have those counted by the Friday after Election Day. Her staff has to update its voter history database before they can address whether each person who used a provisional ballot was a registered voter and had not already voted.

“We’re little here, so we’re hoping we don’t have too many provisionals,” Frey said.

Any ballots that arrive after Election Day — even those that are postmarked by Nov. 3 — will be set aside from the rest, and it’s possible they might eventually be invalidated.

The state Supreme Court previously ruled ballots could be counted if they are received up to three days after Nov. 3. Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to fast-track the state Republican Party’s challenge to that decision, but left open the possibility of ruling on the extension after Election Day. And three of the court’s conservative justices signaled that they had concerns with how Pennsylvania had implemented the extension.

State election officials are now advising counties to set aside any ballots that arrive after polls close. Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s top election official, on Thursday said those ballots should be tallied separately, although she warned that additional litigation could prevent them from being included in the total count of votes in the state.

Seymour, of Blair County, said she hopes there will be more clarity on that point by next week. Her biggest worry, she said, isn’t about being able to count mailed ballots in a timely manner, but about long lines and short tempers at polling places on Election Day.

“I just think the turnout is going to be higher, so there are going to be lines — and with social distancing those lines may appear longer,” she said, urging voters to be patient and treat poll workers and others working elections with respect.

Ronald Seaman, Berks County’s chief administrative officer, also expects the county to have the majority of its mail-in and absentee ballots counted on Election Day.

He said more than 200 county employees have signed up, over two different shifts, to begin processing those ballots starting at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3.

The county has rented space in a local hotel to ensure workers can properly social distance and take Ronald Seaman, Berks County’s chief administrative officer other precautions to stay safe. The county, he said, has equipment that can open about 40,000 envelopes an hour, and scanners that can handle 100 ballots per minute.

“It’s a question of keeping everyone’s nose to the grindstone,” said Seaman, who expects that the majority of mailed ballots can be scanned in by noon on Election Day.

Berks County has received just over 81,000 applications for mailed ballots, and as of mid-week, voters there had returned more than 51,000 such ballots, he said.

His biggest concern, said Seaman, is “a bunch of crazies deciding to wreak havoc on the process,” whether that is attempts at intimidating voters to outright acts of violence on Election Day.

“We will deal with it,” he said.

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