Between the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd, a brand new statewide mail-in voting system and a last-minute deadline extension, the Pennsylvania primary election on June 2 faced unprecedented challenges.
Some voters felt confident with their experience voting by mail, while others worried if their vote would be counted. For some in-person voters, the process didn't differ much from normal; others were frustrated over changes in polling locations and worried about a lack of social distancing.
Anrica Caldwell of Penn Hills called mail-in voting “easy, safe and a convenient way to continue to exercise your right to vote.”
Ethan Boyle of the Strip District also said he voted by mail without any issues. “I think the process went smoothly,” he said. He finds voting in person easier though and said he’d likely vote at his local polling place in November if the pandemic allows.
Allegheny County and state officials have stressed that they’ve gone to great lengths to make the election go smoothly and safely. The county consolidated polling places from a typical 850 locations to 147, encouraged mail-in ballots and pulled in additional staff to process ballot applications around the clock, while Gov. Tom Wolf extended the mail-in ballot deadline by a week for six counties, including Allegheny.
But some voters found themselves caught in the wrinkles of a new system and other procedural changes. A number of local voters expressed frustration over not receiving their mail-in ballots or troubles in processing them, leaving some worrying if their vote would be counted.
Albert Tanjaya, a polling place leadman at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District, said he made dozens of calls throughout Election Day to the Downtown voter registration office with complicated questions about how to help residents whose polling locations had been moved or who hoped to vote in person because they hadn't received their mail-in ballots.
“I don’t think it was as smooth as everyone wanted it to be,” he said.
Sam DeMarco, member of the county board of elections and county Republican chair, agreed: “There’s some significant confusion out there. This is by no means something that’s smooth."
With an eye toward the general election in November, PublicSource heard from almost 40 voters throughout Allegheny County about what worked well — and what didn’t. Here are five key issues that voters called on to be improved before November.
Some voters never received a mail-in ballot.
Arlene Levy is a retired high school government teacher with the following mantra: “Your vote is your voice.”
But a problem with receiving her mail-in ballot means the 75-year-old didn’t have a voice in the primary election. She requested a mail-in ballot on March 15 to cast her vote from Longboat Key, Fla. But on Tuesday, Levy said she still hadn’t received a ballot. Because she’s out of town, there’s no other way for her to vote.
The election is the first time in 52 years that she didn’t vote.
“If we’re using a mail system, I want it to work,” said Levy, of Highland Park. “We’ve got to be able to trust the system for our government to work.”
Levy isn’t alone. PublicSource spoke to eight voters who applied for a mail-in ballot but never received one.
Ron Bandes, president of the nonprofit organization VoteAllegheny, said he believes the No. 1 issue voters struggled with this election was never receiving a mail-in ballot. “I think a lot of that happened,” said Bandes, who said he was personally aware of about a dozen such reports.
Voters who didn’t receive a mail-in ballot could vote a provisional ballot in person at their polling location, if they felt comfortable. In an email Wednesday evening, Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs wrote that the county will be speaking with the local postmaster to “see what changes would be appropriate and would assist with this process.”
While more than 280,000 mail-in ballots were requested, the county has only received about 75% of the ballots back. DeMarco expressed concerns over the numbers. “So 25% of the folks that requested ballots never ended up casting them… How many of these people because they didn’t get a ballot, or because they got them too late, feel disenfranchised?” he said.
The proportion of voters who voted by mail may still rise, as the county is accepting mail-in ballots until June 9.
Some voters sent out their mail-in ballots, only to receive them back.
Alyson Pope and her husband put their mail-in ballots in a public mailbox in Highland Park last week. Three days later, her husband got an email from the state that his ballot had been received. “At that point, I started paying attention to my email, expecting that I would get the same thing, and I didn’t,” Pope, 38, said.
On Monday, she checked her mailbox and found her ballot had been returned to her, a problem other voters also encountered. Postal workers PublicSource spoke to believe the issue occurred because of the design of the elections envelope: the voter’s return address is printed on the back, and there is an additional space for the voter to handwrite their address, which may have caused the mail sorting machines to misinterpret the voter’s address as the delivery address.
Pope decided to drop off her ballot at the county office building the morning of Election Day. “My polling place is right around the corner from my house, and it’s still open, but I would rather not do a provisional ballot,” she said on Monday.
It’s still unclear how widespread the issue is. Of the four voters PublicSource spoke to who experienced this issue, three reside in Pittsburgh’s East End and one resides in an eastern suburb.
Downs said the county would also address this issue when speaking with the local postmaster.
Training confusion for poll workers led to lack of clarity on rules.
Bruce Golightly had planned to work the polls. But he said when he arrived at Allderdice High School on Tuesday morning, the scene was disorganized. According to him, the polling place lacked adequate personal protective equipment and the building entrance, which was just one door, was not suited to social distancing.
Above all, he said he didn’t feel the poll workers were trained properly. “There did not seem to be any plan in place,” he said. “Nobody seemed to have a good handle on what was supposed to happen.”
The disorganization led Golightly to walk out on the job before polls opened. “I said, ‘This is too chaotic, I’m out of here,’” he told PublicSource on Wednesday.
Several local voters who needed to fill out a provisional ballot reported being met with hesitation by poll workers, who were confused by the request.
“I think there is a gap between what was communicated to potential voters, that they had the right to do that… and between the training that the poll workers have received, with everything changing and adjusting,” said Maryn Formley, executive chair and founder of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization Voter Empowerment Education and Enrichment Movement. She said she heard three reports from voters who had faced confusion while seeking to cast a provisional ballot on Tuesday morning. All three instances were sorted out, and the voters were able to cast their ballots.
At 12:45 p.m. Tuesday, Downs wrote in a press email that the county had received “a few” notices of poll workers being hesitant to provide a provisional ballot or being confused as to when a provisional ballot is appropriate. “In all of those cases, Elections contacted the judges to review the procedures,” she wrote.
Formley said after the announcement was made, she did not hear of any additional reports of the incident.
In the Wednesday email, Downs wrote that addressing this concern “requires additional training and reinforcement with poll staff” as to when and how provisional ballots can be provided as required. “We also will look into ways to provide additional drop-off locations if this is one of the ways to best address this need,” she wrote.
Consolidated polling places caused confusion and long waits at some locations.
Jeff Gray, 54, had planned to vote Tuesday. But after walking to his normal voting place, a couple of blocks from his home in North Point Breeze, he saw the location had been moved more than 2 miles away to Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. About three dozen polling places were consolidated into the school.
He said he felt the move failed to consider the burden the relocation placed on his community, and favored Squirrel Hill voters who live closer to the school. “Did the system consider their votes more than the voters here because the demographics are different?” asked Gray, who is Black.
He decided not to vote.
The protests that have erupted across the nation over the death of yet another Black man at the hands of a white police officer buoyed his decision. “The people on the ballot, they don’t express the voices of people like me. Ever. Or there wouldn’t be protests,” Gray said. “You can’t vote in a system that’s invalid.”
Another voter, Leonard Hammonds II, also said reducing the number of open polling places has hurt a lot of Black and Brown communities. Some residents had to vote outside the neighborhoods they’re familiar with and close to, which he views as a form of voter suppression. “There are people now who were frustrated with the whole mail-in ballot process, and then you have individuals that thought that they could just go to a voting poll in their neighborhood, and then that was taken away as well,” he said.
On Monday night, Bo Adams-Welch, 33, checked the state’s voting website to confirm his polling place in Manchester hadn't changed.
But when he showed up to vote on Sheffield Street, a sign on the door redirected him to Manchester Elementary School. At the school, he said he saw other people with notes in their hands that showed the new polling place and thought they may have been redirected, too.
“I am young and can drive and walk and move,” he said. “A lot of other elderly voters, if they got to the old place, they would have to be redirected, and that could be an ordeal for them.”
Downs said the state’s website should’ve been updated May 27. She said around 4 p.m. Tuesday that the county had not received other complaints about the issue.
At some polling places, the consolidations led to long wait times. In Penn Hills, the lines were so long that the ACLU-PA asked the court to keep the polling places open for an additional hour. The polls remained open until 9 p.m.
“This is what happens when you don’t actually devise an equitable plan” based on population and the size of the municipality, said Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County councilperson and member of the county board of elections. With the exception of Pittsburgh, all municipalities had one polling location. “When you do a one-size-fits-all approach, it doesn’t work,” Hallam said.
Act 12, which became state law in March and allowed for up to 60% of polling places to be reduced, only applied to the 2020 primary election, possibly making the issue moot for the November general election.
A lack of social distancing left some voters feeling unsafe.
At many polling places, social distancing guidelines were followed. Attorney Harry Klucher wrote to PublicSource that he showed up to vote in Mt. Lebanon at 8:30 a.m. "[M]asks were on and social distancing was followed," he wrote.
Other voters had less pleasant experiences. "I was uncomfortable with people approaching me to hand literature out," real estate professional and former city council candidate Judith Ginyard, of Point Breeze North, wrote to PublicSource. She voted at Allderdice High School. "Respect for social distancing could have been better, and people congregating at the entrance did not make me feel safe. So I hurried up and got out of there.”
Allderdice High School was also the scene of a physical altercation that stemmed from one voter not wearing a mask. Other voters were arguing with the unmasked voter to put on his mask, according to a county press release. When the unmasked voter began screaming at the other voters, a constable intervened, and pushing and shoving ensued. No charges were filed.
Though poll workers were required to wear masks, voters were not.
Nikki Navta, of the Mexican War Streets, trekked to Manchester to vote, "and the staff was very attentive and followed social distancing and sanitation guidelines," she wrote to PublicSource. "A few of the other voters were not cooperative or observant of the traffic patterns and proper mask-wearing, so that was slightly disturbing."
On Tuesday morning, Downs wrote in a press email that the county had received a few complaints from voters that physical distancing was not being followed at the polls. “In those cases, the lead men/rovers are being contacted and being asked to emphasize the mitigation measures,” she wrote.
Downs wrote on Wednesday that “[t]his is a health issue and we’ll work with [the Allegheny County Health Department] as the November election approaches to follow the guidance” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania Department of Health and the county health department.
Will pain points be fixed before November?
Many of the voters who faced challenges expressed hope that the issues will be resolved for the general election in November.
Jody Handley, of Squirrel Hill, voted by mail, but said she didn’t realize she’d received the wrong ballot — one for a nearby district instead of her own — until after she slipped it in the mail. After contacting the county, she was provided a new ballot.
"What I am hoping is that the gaps that we are exposing now, we are able to do something about it," said Handley, 44.
More than three weeks after mailing in her ballot, Ellen Kight, a retired state employee from Indiana Township, said her vote still hadn’t been recorded as received. She contacted the county and they sent her another ballot, which she filled out and mailed in mid-May. “To this day, no ballot has been received from me at the county,” Knight, 74, told PublicSource on Tuesday. She voted a provisional ballot in person.
Still, she worries that other voters may face similar issues and not know what to do.
“I’m just really concerned, because especially in November, one vote counts...” she said. “And I want my vote to count.”
Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story includes contributions from PublicSource reporters Nicole C. Brambila, TyLisa C. Johnson, Rich Lord and Oliver Morrison and editorial intern Emma Folts.