Lilac Philly

The November Election: Untangling the Web of Laws, Regulations, and Challenges

By Jonathan David, Aug. 16, 2020

Philadelphia--In the upcoming election on November 3th, the US electorate is engaged in a gargantuan struggle against two demons.

First is the demon of a viral pandemic that threatens the health of all voters who may congregate at polling places if they choose to vote in person. The second demon is the Trump administration’s attempt to suppress votes by crippling public services. These obstacles have created a tangle of new and threatened voting procedures that will reduce the number of people who can participate in the democratic process.

Neither of these will go away by election time. For now, being as informed as possible about how the election will unfold is the best option we have to overcome these obstacles. And we shall overcome.

Here is what you need to know as of this time to ensure that come November, your vote will count

In October 2019, Governor Wolf signed new election procedures into law (ACT 77) that allows voters to request mail-in ballots without having to state a reason, and allows voters to either mail their ballots to the County Board of Elections or drop them off at the Board’s office.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year, the state passed a series of amendments to the election code called ACT 12. These emergency procedures, applied only to the June 4th Pennsylvania primary, allowed for local polling places to be consolidated to serve a larger section of the city. In addition, several county election boards across the state did not require voters to drop off ballots in their offices, but placed regional drop boxes around the county to ease voters’ ability to deliver their ballot to election officials.

But that was then. Now there is a battle to suppress votes proceeding on multiple fronts.

The first front is the Post Office. The current postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has taken measures to ensure mail delivery is slowed down, and mail-in ballots in particular, do not reach election offices in a timely fashion. They expect there to be so many ballots mailed at once that both the Post Office and those counting the ballots will be overwhelmed.The system for counting them could break down. Millions of mail-in votes could be ruled invalid because the Postal Service delivered them late. As of now, the President is refusing to negotiate a stimulus bill that would fund the post office, with the hope that many mail-in ballots will be disqualified.

This is not to mention that without a stimulus, thousands could become homeless and for them, voting could be less important than, well, surviving.

On the local front in the attack on voting, the Trump administration has opened three lawsuits against the state of Pennsylvania, says Pat Christmas, Policy Director of the Committee of Seventy. First, they are challenging the legality of regional drop-boxes that helped voters during the June primary. Second, they are challenging the secrecy envelopes in which voters place their ballots. Third, the Trump administration wants to be able to assign their poll watchers to any location in the state. As of now, designated poll watchers are allowed only to monitor the election in individual counties, says Mr. Christmas.

There has been some push back against these attacks on voting rights

The Pennsylvania Department of State oversees our state’s elections and has encouraged county election offices to set up satellite offices with drop boxes for mail-in ballots, including in areas that often have low turnout or long lines.

Pennsylvania’s Department of State is also asking the state Supreme Court to extend the deadline for ballots mailed in from the current policy of having to arrive by 5:00 p.m. on election day to being postmarked by 5 p.m. on election day, if received at the election office within three days after the election.

Also Pennsylvania will include postage-paid return envelopes with each mail-in ballot, eliminating each voter’s need to go to the Post Office to purchase stamps.

Keystone Votes, a non-partisan coalition of election advocacy that includes the Committee of Seventy, is asking the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a new round of emergency changes to the election law. They are asking:

  1. That poll workers in a particular ward or district be able to be moved anywhere within a county, to ensure that each polling place has enough workers available.
  2. That ballots postmarked by 5:00 p.m. on election day are counted if received at the election office up to seven days after the election.
  3. That counties be permitted to begin processing returned ballots at least seven days before Election Day, and have the state funding to take all the above steps.

In written testimony to Philadelphia City Council, the Committee of Seventy also recommended that polling place consolidation, if necessary at all because of COVID-19-related disruptions, should be kept to a minimum so that enough polls remain open within an acceptable traveling distance for voters, according to written testimony

Trina Bodnik, an assistant in Commissioner Lisa Deeley’s office recommends applying for mail-in ballots early. Mr. Christmas encourages those who have Internet access to apply online. Remember, he says, that for every paper application the election board receives, someone must process the application and type the voter’s data into a database. Staff could be swamped with paperwork.

“Flatten the curve!” Mr. Christmas adds, in perhaps his most important advice to voters. Apply for a mail-in vote early and send your ballot in early. That way the ballots will arrive in a steady stream rather in one big surge at the end. Postal workers and election workers will be able to process ballot applications and the ballots themselves more easily.

At this trying time, anything that makes our election easier is welcome indeed.

Things to remember and do

  • Register to vote online at https://www.pavoterservices.pa.gov/pages/VoterRegistrationApplication.aspx
  • Apply for a mail-in ballot early. Right now is not too soon. Apply online if you can (you must have a PennDot ID). Send in your ballot early. Flatten the curve.
  • October 19th is the last day for your voter registration application to be received by the county election office. Mail your registration early so it arrives by this time.
  • Volunteers can collect many voter registration forms and mail-in applications from many voters, according to Ms. Botnik in the Commissioner’s office, but mail-in ballots must be delivered to the Post Office or drop box by the individual who is voting or their designated representative.
  • The deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot is currently 5:00 p.m. the Tuesday before election day.
  • Currently the deadline for ballots to be received by the County Board of Elections is 5:00 p.m. on election day, Nov. 3.
  • First time voters—young adults, newly-naturalized citizens, and those who have just moved— need to show some sort of identification at a polling place. It could be a bank statement, a utility bill, or a paycheck will work.
  • Apply to be a poll worker, especially if you are young and healthy or have Covid antibodies. Many poll workers are over 60 and at high risk for coronavirus. A shortage of poll workers could result in fewer polling places and stall in-person voting. For more information, click: https://www.votespa.com/Resources/Pages/Be-a-Poll-Worker.aspx
  • Volunteer to help a grassroots campaign to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote, such as this one sponsored by Rick Krajewski and Jamie Gauthier: https://actionnetwork.org/forms/phonebank-with-westsouthwest-philly-votes
  • Organize veteran canvassing cadre of the Krasner/Brooks/Saval/Krajewski campaigns to form a grassroots campaign of our own to get out the vote.