Legislative hearing voting 2020 election

Clockwise from top left, Councilman Curtis Jones; City Commissioner Al Schmidt; City Commissioner Chairwoman Lisa Deeley; and City Councilman Derek Green attend a council legislative oversight committee hearing on Tuesday via video conference. — Screenshot

City election officials and watchdog groups sounded the alarm on Tuesday that Philadelphia might not be fully prepared to manage the November election.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended elections in Philadelphia and created an urgent need for more funding and reforms to avert disenfranchising voters in the presidential election, said the City Commissioners, the three-member board that oversees elections, and others.

Pat Christmas, policy director for the nonpartisan city election watchdog Committee of Seventy, pressed local and state elected officials that they needed to better plan and prepare for the upcoming election or risk repeating the missteps seen in the June 2 primary.

“If we basically repeat what we did in June, we’re going to have a disaster on our hands,” Christmas said during a City Council committee hearing. 

City Councilman Curtis Jones, who heads the legislative oversight committee that held the hearing, said the nation and Pennsylvania were at a crossroads and the upcoming election was more consequential than any previous contest.

Jones said it was critical that voters “believe and are ensured that it’s a fair and open process.”

The pandemic delayed the state’s primary, ushered in no-excuse mail-in ballot voting, and forced approximately 80% of the city’s 830-some polling places to close.

The result: City election officials had to scramble to process hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots and adhere to new state policies, some voters waited for hours to cast their ballots on new voting machines at the few open polling places, and there was some confusion over mail-in ballot dropbox locations, among other things.

City Commissioner Chairwoman Lisa Deeley said her office needed at least $4 million for new equipment and more than $2 million to hire additional staff, among other things, or her office risked not being able to process the ballot volume typical for a presidential election.

“Our whole world has been turned upside-down and now we are doing two different elections: One in-person and one by mail,” Deeley said.

“And they both require completely different equipment [and] a completely different set of skill sets when we talk about staffing needs — and money and space.”

Deeley laid out a wish list for officials for her office to better manage the upcoming election, including:

  • More satellite offices for in-person mail-in voting locations ($140,000 each);
  • Voter applications with pre-paid postage ($1 million);
  • More ballot dropbox locations ($10,000 each);
  • Funding for advertising campaigns;
  • More space to process ballots.

The city has more than 1 million registered voters.

Election officials have already received more than 140,000 mail-in ballot applications for the general election and anticipate receiving 350,000 mail-in ballots in the November election (half of all expected votes).

In the June primary, 348,740 voters (32% of registered voters) cast ballots, of which 140,393 were mail-in ballots and 34,783 were absentee ballots. Turnout is expected to double for the general election. (The 2016 presidential election drew 66% of registered voters to the polls.)

Deeley said she hoped to have as many polling places open in November as possible. Election officials have already confirmed at least half of the number of polling places used in the 2019 election, which would be approximately 415, but Deeley cautioned some would be lost due to the pandemic.

A “lack of clarity” from the state was hindering the city’s elections effort and confusing voters, Deeley said.

“It’s hard to push out procedures when there are still unanswered questions going through the legislature,” Deeley said. “There are changes that have not been hammered out."

With the election 104 days away, Deeley called for state lawmakers to ramp up and extend the state's advertising campaign for voters to apply for mail-in ballots on its websites and place paper applications at liquor stores.

Deeley also called for policy changes, including allowing election offices to begin counting mail-in ballots prior to election day, which is the current policy, and pushing back the deadline for receiving mail-in ballots from 8 p.m. on election day to Nov. 10.

The clutch of state representatives on the call, all of whom were Democrats, did not give city officials any assurances that those policy recommendations would be forthcoming.

“We are in negotiations with reforms to the voting system with the Republican majorities in the [state] House and Senate,” said state Rep. Kevin J. Boyle (D-172).

Suzanne Almeida, interim director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania, encouraged officials to better communicate with voters and prepare contingency plans to hold the election during the public health crisis, like putting consolidated polling locations near public transportation.

The lack of funding for elections also was a significant problem, Almeida added.

“Elections infrastructure is criminally underfunded across the country," Almeida said, "and I think that’s really evident in Pennsylvania both at the state level and at the City Council level." 

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