A short guide to voting in Allegheny County during a global pandemic | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A short guide to voting in Allegheny County during a global pandemic

CP photo illustration: Jared Wickerham
Updated: 6:49 p.m., Mon., June 1:

On Mon., June 1, the night before the June 2 election, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-York) signed an executive order extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to June 9 at 8 p.m. for six counties: Allegheny, Dauphin, Erie, Montgomery, Delaware, and Philadelphia counties. Until now, voters were told that ballots had to be returned to the county's election office by the evening of June 2. With the extension, ballots must be postmarked by June 2, but can be counted as long as they are received by June 9.

In a press release, the governor cited the pandemic and statewide protests as contributing to the decision, as well as a surge in requests for mail-in ballots.

"This is an unprecedented time for Pennsylvania and our nation as we face a major public health crisis and civil unrest during an election,” said Wolf in the press release. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and I want to ensure that voters can cast their ballot and that it is received in time.”

The six counties with deadline extensions are also the six counties included in Wolf's disaster emergency declaration in responses to the protests.

This will also mean that it will taken longer than previously thought to get the final election results.

Original story, published Wed., May 20:

This year’s primary election is like no other in recent memory. A global pandemic still hangs over the U.S., and many parts of Pennsylvania are still under stay-at-home orders. Allegheny County’s stay-at-home orders were partially lifted recently, but voters shouldn’t expect a typical Election Day on June 2.

County officials have consolidated most polling places and are encouraging citizens to vote by mail as much as they possibly can. Social distancing rules still apply, so in-person voting is still possible, but with Pennsylvania having a new, no-excuse vote-by-mail system, avoiding the Election Day lines is both advisable and accessible.

To navigate the primary election during a time of uncertainty, here are a few important things to remember when voting and observing election results this year:

Most Polling Places Are Closed

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Allegheny County will operate 147 polling locations, but still cover 416 election districts. That's about one-third of the total districts that operate during a normal election. Each municipality is given one polling location, except the city of Pittsburgh, which has 16, or one for every two of its wards. (Visit pghcitypaper.com for a spreadsheet of all available locations.)

“Voting at polls on Election Day, that will likely be very slow,” says Allegheny County elections director David Voye.

But voters have the option to skip the polls altogether and can vote by mail instead, no reason necessary. The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is May 26, but county officials are also sending every registered voter a mail-in ballot application, even if voters don’t request one. Ballots must be returned to the county’s election office in Downtown Pittsburgh by June 2 at 8 p.m. (If you fear your ballot won't arrive by mail in time, you can return the ballot to the county election offices in person, as long as it is before 8 p.m. on June 2. Just remember to practice social distancing.)

Vote By Mail As Early As Possible

Since Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail law requires ballots to be returned, as opposed to simply postmarked by the voting deadline, it’s best not to wait around before mailing in your ballot. It’s unclear exactly how long it could take for a ballot to travel from mailbox to the county’s election office, so just fill out, sign, and mail in the ballot as soon as you can.

If you received two ballots, just fill out one and mail it in. The county accidentally sent out multiple ballots to some voters due to a problem with the state voting system. Fear not: A barcode on the ballot envelope ensures that only one ballot can be counted per voter.

Turning in ballots sooner rather than later will also give county election officials more time to prepare for counting the likely hundreds of thousands of ballots that will be mailed in.

Election Results Might Take Longer Than Usual

As of May 15, there have been more than 180,000 ballot applications submitted in Allegheny County. If all those were to be turned in, voter turnout would eclipse 2012 turnout for a presidential primary in Allegheny County.

With high turnout expected, and the majority of votes coming through the mail instead of the ballot machines, voters shouldn’t expect to see election results as quickly as usual. Typically, election results in Pennsylvania can be counted on election night.

This year, county officials can start counting mail-in ballots starting at 7 a.m. on June 2. County officials say they have eight ballot counting machines that can count 300 ballots per minute. However, ballots need to be removed from envelopes, scanned, and verified before being counted by the machine. That will take significant people power.

Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs says she expects there to be about 100 staff members involved in the counting process and the intent is to remain until all votes are counted.

Those mail-in and absentee ballot tallies can’t be released until after the polls close. Downs expects the first batch to be uploaded after polls close at 8 p.m. But other than that, there is a lot of uncertainty about when all the results will come in, due to COVID-19 and the fact this is the first election Allegheny County will conduct with such a large volume of mail-in ballots. Downs says that specific deadlines for additional results are hard to pin down right now.

“As this is the first time for this process and it has been altered due to COVID-19, we don’t know the flow of when results will come in and how quickly we’ll go through the process to scan and report them out,” says Downs.

It might be best to just wait until the morning of Wed., June 3 to check up on the election results. It could be a very, very long night.

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