Pennsylvania’s New Voting System
June 10, 2020
It is by now a cliché to describe last Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary as “an election like no other.”
Cliché or not, the description certainly holds up: originally scheduled for April, the primary was delayed for six weeks, adding a further measure of confusion to what was already noteworthy as the first election in which Pennsylvania allowed no-excuse voting by mail. As the weeks wore on, counties found themselves forced to consolidate polling places to ensure that enough workers could be found to staff a poll, and applications for mail ballots turned into a flood. As if that were not enough, the Governor added a further wrinkle with a last-minute decision to extend the deadline for receiving mail ballots in some counties as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
How did it go? The short answer is “far better than one could reasonably have hoped.”
No one would suggest that it was impossible to find lines of voters, but the staggering, hours-long waits that marked recent elections in Georgia and Wisconsin were absent, even though voter turnout was at least a notch or two higher than one might have expected with both parties’ presidential contests long since settled.
A majority of votes seem to have been cast by mail, in a process that generally seemed to work, although the combination of a brand-new system and extraordinary demand in the midst of a pandemic plainly taxed most county offices.
Counting the ballots cast by mail and on new machines mandated by recent changes in the law was notably slower than in the recent past, but this has been the experience of other states with wide use of mail ballots. Allegheny County, the second largest in the state, stood out as it made public the results of some 100,000 ballots counted that day thirty minutes after the polls closed.
One notable exception was the famously inefficient elections department of the city of Philadelphia, which as we go to press still had some 140,000 uncounted mail ballots, raising not wholly unreasonable concerns that we might be doomed to re-live the disputed election of 2000, which was also triggered by the sheer incompetence of a single county’s election officials.
Even without the pandemic, shifting to new voting systems governed by new rules on the eve of a contentious, high-turnout presidential election was an exercise in tempting the Fates. It is one Pennsylvania at least tentatively seems to have withstood—which gives some reason for optimism, since there is no serious question that even as the Corona virus passes into history, this is how elections in Pennsylvania will be conducted in the years ahead.