Even for close observers, the amount of change to Pennsylvania’s election system over the past three years has been difficult to keep up with.
Voters will need to navigate those changes on Nov. 8, when turnout is expected to be high as control of both houses of Congress is up for grabs, and Democrats are attempting to win control of the Pennsylvania House after a new district map made them more competitive than they have been in years. Plus, the gubernatorial election includes a Republican candidate who marched on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and could decide whether abortion is outlawed in the commonwealth.
Poll workers will likely have to handle turnout above 50% after they dealt with ballot shortages and other procedural challenges during the May primary.
The questions and answers below are meant to help Allegheny County voters sidestep confusion and confidently exercise their right to vote in this critical midterm election.
- Are abortion rights on the ballot?
- Why was there a shortage of ballots in the May election?
- Is voting by mail still allowed?
- Will there be drop boxes or satellite voting?
- How long will it take to get results?
Are abortion rights on the ballot?
Indirectly. There will be no ballot question this November concerning abortion. But voters will choose a new governor and elect state legislators, who together may decide whether abortion will remain legal in Pennsylvania.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, Pennsylvania Republicans signaled they would move to restrict access next year. The November election will decide whether they have the power to do so.
Republicans now control both chambers in the state capitol, and they have done so for most of the last few decades. But Democrats are emboldened by the court’s abortion decision and a new district map that puts them in contention for a House majority.
The marquee election in this regard is the race to replace Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is term limited. The candidates are state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who is making his support for abortion access a key campaign issue, and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who favors curtailing access or banning it altogether.
If Shapiro is elected, his veto power will effectively prevent the legislature from cutting abortion access, even if a majority of legislators want to.
Why was there a shortage of ballots in the May election?
Turnout was surprisingly high, election officials say. Minor hiccups in election administration are not uncommon, but ballot shortages at numerous Allegheny County precincts in the spring primary took longtime poll workers by surprise. A new state law should prevent a repeat of this problem, though.
A number of precincts reported running out of ballots before the day ended, forcing them to rely on ExpressVote machines meant for voters with disabilities. Because there is only one ExpressVote machine at most locations, this resulted in longer wait times for voters and confusion for some poll workers who were less familiar with that process than with the standard ballots.
Since the county switched from digital machines to paper ballots in 2020, it has never provided precincts with enough ballots for each registered voter. County officials say they underestimated how many people would vote in person as they calculated how many ballots to distribute to each station.
County elections staff raced to resupply precincts this May, but the volume of requests and a flaming wreck on the Liberty Bridge complicated matters.
LeeAnn Wagner Cica, who has worked the polls in Highland Park for a decade, said by evening they were even running low on ExpressVote ballots. “I was 18 Express ballots away from not having a way for Democrats to vote,” she said in an interview.
Dustin Pierce, the judge of elections for a Springdale polling station since 2018, said he was down to one Republican ballot at the end of the day, despite just 27% turnout at his precinct. “We were staring at that thing through the end, hoping two people wouldn’t walk in,” he said.
The county Elections Division, in a written response to public comments in June, blamed the ballot shortages on unexpectedly high voter turnout. Turnout was up compared to the last midterm primaries in 2018, particularly among Republicans. More than 93,000 county Republicans weighed in on the contentious U.S. Senate primary this year, compared to about 48,000 voting in the competitive 2018 Senate primary.
Though the Board of Elections argued over how to prevent a shortage from happening again, state lawmakers answered the question for them this summer. A new law requires the county to print a ballot for each registered voter, minus the number of voters who received mail-in ballots, for general elections. For primaries, they must print enough for 50% of the voters.
Amie Downs, the communications director for Allegheny County, said the county will ultimately print more ballots than the new law requires. When the county begins printing ballots weeks ahead of the election, it will subtract the number of mail-in ballots requested by that date from the number of registered voters, even though more voters may later choose the mail option before the Nov. 1 deadline to do so.
Is voting by mail still allowed?
Yes. There have been multiple legal challenges to no-excuse mail voting since its 2019 legalization, but they ultimately failed, and any Pennsylvania voter can request a mail-in ballot for the November election.
Voters have until Nov. 1 to request a mail-in ballot and they have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to return it to the county.
This is an issue to keep an eye on after this election, though: Republicans remain eager to repeal no-excuse mail voting, and if they control the legislature and the governor’s office in 2023, they could do so.
Will there be drop boxes or satellite voting?
No. Allegheny County has never used drop boxes, though it did set up “satellite” locations where voters could deliver mail-in ballots or apply for them on the spot for the 2020 election. Officials said at a recent meeting that they have no plans to repeat that.
An August Board of Elections meeting became tense when Hallam pushed for drop boxes or satellite voting locations for this fall and the board’s chair, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, opposed the idea. Fitzgerald said the sites are unnecessary and that voters effectively have drop boxes anyway, in the form of mailboxes.
How long will it take to get results?
It’s unclear. After Allegheny County took several days to process its unprecedented number of mail-in and provisional votes in the 2020 presidential election, each count since then has been much smoother. A combination of much lower turnout and lived experience has allowed the county to finish counting the mail ballots before polls close on Election Day during each of the three subsequent elections, meaning voters could learn the results before bedtime on election night.
If that trend continues, state House and some congressional races could have clear outcomes on election night (though the Democratic primary for the 12th congressional district this year proved that it can still take extra days).
This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.
But statewide races, such as the closely watched U.S. Senate and governor races, rely on other counties’ reporting, and some may require more time. Citing staffing constraints, some smaller counties in recent elections haven’t even started to count mailed ballots until after Election Day. In this year’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which was decided by fewer than 1,000 votes statewide, it took more than a week to establish Mehmet Oz as the apparent winner, and then a recount dragged things out further.
The legislature recently added a financial incentive for counties to count quickly. Counties can receive millions of dollars to help administer the upcoming election if they meet certain requirements, one of which is beginning to count mail-in ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day and not pausing until the count is complete. All but four of the 67 counties sought the funds, including Allegheny County, which received more than $4.7 million.
This story was fact-checked by Aavin Mangalmurti.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.