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June 2 primary will reflect COVID-19 impact

Mail-in ballots, poll sites will be ready

May 6, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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The primary will be upon voters in less than a month, and the county and state are preparing for the likely COVID-19 version.

“Free and fair elections are essential to who we are as a country,” said Gov. Tom Wolf Monday. “From where we stand today it is unlikely that we eradicate COVID-19 from our commonwealth by June 2.”

The county is doing all it can to meet the needs of voters June 2, according to Leslie Osche, county commissioner chairwoman.

She said the county's Bureau of Election will be ready with both mail-in and poll voting systems.

“It's great that people have the opportunity to do what they're comfortable doing,” Osche said.

The governor and the Department of State, over last month, informed voters through post cards and digital media platforms of the new June 2 primary date and emphasizing the benefits of mail-in voting. The shift in the primary date from April 28 to June 2 was approved in March.

“Because of the virus, some Pennsylvanians may be nervous about visiting a polling place, fortunately now, Pennsylvanians can vote through the mail,” Wolf said.

According to a state report Monday, nearly 1 million voters have applied for a mail-in ballot.

“This has all proven to be very effective,” said Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

The state is directing people interested in mail-in ballots — first and foremost — to www.votespa.com, where they can apply online.

“This is definitely the best way to do it, if you have access to the Web,” Boockvar said.

Anyone who does not have Internet access may call the state department at 1-877-868-3772.

County sites prepare

At a local level, the county's Bureau of Elections has been operating without a leader after the departure of longtime director Shari Brewer, who left last month.

Osche said the staff in the bureau has risen to the challenge in both preparing mail-in ballots and preparing polling sites and workers.

“It's a group effort right now,” she said.

The state notified counties last week about subgrants they will receive to help offset additional expenses incurred during the pandemic.

Osche said the county will receive more than $105,000 through the Election Securities Grant and more than $90,000 from the CARES Act dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have ordered additional cleaning supplies, masks, gloves and pens, so each voter has their own pen,” Osche said.

Osche said the money will also be used for additional staffing and equipment needed for this election.

“It's extremely helpful because otherwise, it would be coming out of our general fund,” she said.

On Monday, Boockvar said the Department of State will also send counties precinct infection-protection kits, so poll workers can maintain a safe voting environment at polling locations. These kits will include masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, floor-marking tape and other sanitizing supplies, and will be provided to the counties at no cost.

The legislation that brought the primary change also gave county elections bureaus across the state more flexibility. It allowed them to consolidate polling sites and poll workers to fit the county's need.

Osche said the county has been looking at its own polling sites and is coming close to announcing some changes. She said six sites will likely be affected for this election, but only one of them will be consolidated into another location. The other five locations will likely move to a different spot.

Osche said the county is also considering some staffing changes, including additional staffing inside and outside the polls to help direct voters where to go and how to practice social distancing.

Election Systems & Software, from which the county bought its latest voting system, is conducting logic and accuracy testing to ensure the equipment is ready to go. The company has also offered additional support on the day of the primary.

“All the things will be available at the polls to make sure you have a safe experience when you come to vote,” Osche said.

While precautions are planned at the polls, Wolf has made it clear that the responsibility to practice these safety procedures is in the hands of the voters.

“The whole thing here is that each of us, all 12.8 million, have the responsibility for not infecting our friends and neighbors and people that we're close to,” he said. “That's true in all settings, and it's also true on election day.”

When asked during a Monday news conference if social distancing practices would be enforced at polling places, Wolf responded definitely that they would not.

“The commonwealth is not doing anything to force anybody to do anything,” Wolf said. “We're basically saying this is something we ought to be doing because it's the right thing to do and it's a good thing to do to protect the people around us.”

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Nathan Bottiger

Nathan Bottiger

Nathan Bottiger graduated with a degree in journalism in 2015 from Pitt-Johnstown. A business reporter, he also covers Slippery Rock borough, township and school district.