Pennsylvania’s presidential primary is April 28.
Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary election is six weeks away, but state officials are now discussing how to keep the public safe amid a COVID-19 outbreak.
“The Department of State is having comprehensive discussions about a range of potential options for the April primary election,” Wanda Murren, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said in an email. “Those discussions are being held in consultation with the Department of Health, the governor’s office, the legislature and the counties. Our focus is on best ways to protect the integrity of the election while safeguarding public health.”
Two states have postponed their primaries amid concerns about the outbreak. And a third, neighboring Ohio, planned to shut down its primary until a judge reversed the decision Monday night.
Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Illinois are scheduled to cast ballots Tuesday.
On Sunday, Georgia postponed its presidential primary, moving the date from March 24 to May 19, when the state was already scheduled to hold primaries for down-ballot contests. It joined Louisiana, which on Friday postponed its April 4 primary to June 20.
Erie County Clerk Doug Smith said local election officials are in a wait-and-see mode when it comes to possible changes that might be handed down from the state.
In the meantime, Smith is working with the Erie County Board of Elections and the Elections office to find ways to keep poll workers and voters safe.
“We are reassuring our poll workers that we are doing everything we can in terms of offering them protection,” Smith said.
They’re exploring buying rubber gloves for use at the county’s 149 precincts. And they’re also working with the county Purchasing Department to find hand sanitizer, which is in short supply amid the pandemic. The county has made hand sanitizer available at polling sites since it moved to electronic touchscreen voting in 2006.
Erie County will use new voting machines for the first time next month. The new Dominion Voting system gives voters the choice of voting on a touchscreen device, which prints a paper copy, or directly onto a paper ballot.
The Board of Elections on Friday canceled all remaining public demonstrations of the machines through the end of the month. Demonstrations are expected to resume in April.
Erie County bought the machines because of a state mandate requiring all counties to have a voting system that leaves a paper trail. The mandate is intended to address national cybersecurity issues that arose during the 2016 presidential election.
Now, election officials are trying to address a public health crisis.
Five poll workers told Smith last week that they had reconsidered working April 28.
“They said quite openly they have concerns with COVID-19 and they don’t want to take the chance,” he said. “I imagine we’ll get more of that depending on how things work out with cases in Erie County and information we just don’t know right now.”
As of Monday morning there were no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in Erie County.
It takes about 700 poll workers to run an election of this size in Erie County. Smith hoped to add more poll workers for the primary to assist voters with the new machines.
“We have a lot of poll workers who are older,” he said. “Obviously, they’re right smack in the middle of the high-risk group. It’s understandable.”
Another issue that could pose a problem is the polling places themselves — schools, churches, community centers, etc.
As of Monday, Smith had not fielded concerns from anyone overseeing a facility that will be used for the April 28 primary.
Local and state election officials are urging voters concerned about COVID-19 to cast a mail-in ballot, which is being offered in Pennsylvania for the first time.
Voters do not need to provide a reason to vote by mail, unlike the state’s previous absentee ballot provisions. The change was made in a comprehensive bill that aims to modernize elections.
“We will immediately notify the public if there are to be any changes in primary voting,” Murren said. “In the meantime, we remind Pennsylvania voters that the new mail-in ballot option provides a valuable alternative and can be used for any reason or no reason at all.”
Smith expects COVID-19 to generate even more requests for mail-in ballots than the state was anticipating.
“It’s a great thing for voters that they have this option,” he said. “It’s not a choice of having to stay home to feel safe now. If people have concerns, they can vote by mail. Limited contact has been the directive all over. In that regard, we are lucky this legislation unfolded the way it did.”
Contact Matthew Rink at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNrink.