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Pandemic, partisanship exposed gaps in mail voting law

The Investigator

December 3, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

A complete mail-in voting postmortem, a maskless hearing, "mistakes were made," new testing strike teams, a victory against Sunoco, and a lack of banks. Plus, Spotlight PA is proud to introduce our Diverse Source Database.

Before any threat of a deadly, fast-spreading coronavirus disrupted daily life in every way across Pennsylvania, state lawmakers had approved a new way of voting that gave residents an alternative to going in person to the polls.

As Marie Albiges reports for Spotlight PA and Votebeat, experts, advocates, and lawmakers largely agree Act 77 and no-excuse voting by mail was a success. But the strain of the pandemic — as well as a president determined to undermine the voting process and spread misinformation — magnified gaps in a law that was intended to make voting easier.

Those holes regarding “cured” ballots and signature matching then had to be filled through guidance from the Department of State, which prompted court challenges and opened the door for some Republicans — from President Donald Trump to state and local lawmakers — to launch unsubstantiated claims that the executive and judicial branches were attempting to swing the election in favor of Democrat Joe Biden.

While it's been a week since Pennsylvania certified its results for Biden, the president and other Republicans are continuing their attacks on the state's election integrity. One prime target: Dominion Voting Systems, which the campaign has without evidence accused of deleting and switching votes.

Albiges spoke to six of the 14 Pennsylvania counties that use the company's machines and found either no problems or minor ones, including voter confusion. The federal government has also reported no widespread fraud or voter manipulation in the election throughout the country.

Spotlight PA and our partner Votebeat are continuing to cover the aftermath of Election Day and highlight solutions for voting improvements. If you value this fact-based reporting, become a monthly donor right now. Bonus? Give $15/month or $180/year and you'll get a really cool tote bag.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA


"It seems to me that a body like our state Senate should be modeling appropriate behavior, instead of behavior that is inappropriate such as this."

— Chrysan Cronin, director of Muhlenberg College’s public health program, on a maskless election event organized by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin). The lawmaker tested positive for COVID-19 the same day.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county.

» You’re invited! A live reader Q&A on COVID-19 in Pa. and the vaccine

» ‘Mistakes were made’ at maskless election hearing, GOP leader says

» GOP leadership silent after Pa. senator tests positive for COVID-19

» Trump invited lawmakers to White House. Then everyone went silent.

Spotlight PA launches Diverse Source Database

Spotlight PA has launched a Diverse Source Database of Pennsylvania experts as a public service for all journalists. The database, now available at sources.spotlightpa.org, aims to ensure that local and statewide news coverage is more equitable and better reflects the communities we serve.

It includes nearly 100 Pennsylvania-based sources who made their contact information available to journalists. Participants defined themselves and their expertise on their terms, including their pronouns, names, phonetic pronunciations, and more.

Spotlight PA is continuing to grow and improve the list. If you would like to nominate someone or yourself for the database, you can use this form.

Like every database, there are limitations. There are people who don’t trust the media, who don’t want to be singled out in this way, or whom Spotlight PA has missed because of its own limitations.

This is also just a small step in the commitment to diversify journalism in the state. The database is a tool to help journalists expand and improve their coverage, and Spotlight PA has invited all of its 58 partner newsrooms to participate, nominate, and use it. Spotlight PA will continue to use its leadership position in this collaborative network to advocate for greater representation and inclusion in coverage throughout the state.

If you have ideas for improving the database or suggestions for how to encourage journalists to use it, Spotlight PA would love to hear from you. And if you value this kind of public service in Pennsylvania, please consider becoming a member of Spotlight PA today.

This project was made possible by a generous grant from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Foundation Fellows Fund for the Future, and was led by Tamara Dunn, formerly of the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre.

— Spotlight PA Staff

» THERE'S STILL TIME TO CELEBRATE: If you're a loyal reader of The Investigator and value our journalism, show your love by celebrating #GivingNewsDay and becoming a member today. Contributions in any amount will help power our work into 2021.

AND! For a limited time, if you give $15/month or $180/year, we'll throw in our exclusive Pennsylvania tote bag.

There are only 27 left! Don't miss out, claim yours now.
ONGOING INVESTIGATION: Pennsylvania's auditor general has confirmed the findings of an Inquirer investigation into deficiencies at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center, where at least 42 people have died of COVID-19 and supervisors discouraged nurses and aides from wearing masks. At the same time, dozens of nursing homes are still failing to report case numbers to the state, The Times-Tribune reports.

TESTING WOES: State officials are deploying COVID-19 testing “strike teams” across Pennsylvania to help slow the spread of the virus. PennLive reports the state currently ranks second-to-last in the U.S. in terms of tests completed per 100,000 residents.

SHUT OUT: Families and advocates say they are being cut out of the state Department of Health’s studies into whether fracking had anything to do with a group of childhood cancer cases in Washington County. According to State Impact, the department rejected their request to establish a “process overview panel" made up of community members and outside experts.

DAVID AND GOLIATH: One Cumberland County man scored a partial victory against Sunoco regarding the Mariner East pipeline system, after the Public Utility Commission found the company performed inadequate public outreach, The Sentinel reports. The case follows a Spotlight PA investigation that revealed many who live along the pipeline have been kept in the dark about its safety and what to do in an emergency

'VESTED INTEREST': Bank branches are disappearing in some of the poorest sections of Erie where residents are primarily non-white. While online banking is growing, the Erie Times-News found the presence of a bank office can be significant for a community.

» AP: Wolf vetoes GOP-backed bill on limiting COVID-19 liability

» ERIE NEWS NOW: First Pa. trans elected official now school board chief

» INQUIRER: Philly mom beat by police, separated from son speaks out

» POST-GAZETTE: Some unemployed gig workers must pay back funds

» USA TODAY: False mail ballot claim mixes primary, general data

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

LETTER-ALLY (Case No. 69): What is notable about the sentence, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs."
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