What could mail-in voting mean for Pennsylvania in the age of COVID-19? Seven experts weigh in.

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A resident walks near a polling place in East Liberty on May 21, 2019. Voting has changed dramatically in the wake of the coronavirus. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A resident walks near a polling place in East Liberty on May 21, 2019. Voting has changed dramatically in the wake of the coronavirus. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Update 4/23/2020: The Allegheny County Board of Elections approved a resolution to consolidate up to 60% of the county’s roughly 1,300 polling places, subject to approval by the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Voting would be limited to each municipality’s municipal building and, in Pittsburgh, to sites in each of city council’s nine districts.
Voters will be notified by mail of the changes, election officials said.

Update 4/13/2020: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on April 13 called for an expansion of the state emergency declaration to allow the county to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot to avoid voters going to the polls for the June 2 primary election. Fitzgerald is following the recommendation of Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen, who said in-person voting would contradict the necessary precautions to curb the spread of the virus. 


COVID-19 has upended almost every part of American life. Our system of elections is no exception. For some Wisconsin voters earlier this month, the choice seemed impossible: Show up to polling places while the state is under the stay-at-home order due to the pandemic, or not vote at all. Mail-in voting in Wisconsin is limited to absentee ballots only for certain excuses, and the pandemic was not on that list.

Pennsylvania officials pushed the state’s primary back from April 28 to June 2, and when PublicSource asked Gov. Tom Wolf on April 1 if he urges all Pennsylvanians to apply for a mail-in ballot for the upcoming election to mitigate in-person voting crowds, he said, “Yes, I think that would be a really good idea.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said during a press conference April 8 that the way the Wisconsin primary unfolded raised “concerns,” and he hopes to be able to announce a plan next week on how the county will conduct its election.

Pennsylvania changed its law in 2019 to allow voting-by-mail by request with no need to list an excuse. Other states spent years gradually building a robust mail-in voting system, and Pennsylvania is now faced with preparing for a huge increase in mail voting in just a couple months. Election experts say vote-by-mail can get our democracy safely through the pandemic, but they point out a number of potential vulnerabilities.

PublicSource spoke with seven experts — including fair election advocates, security experts and scholars — about the benefits and hazards of conducting democracy by mail. Among their warnings were the potential for disenfranchisement, voter coercion and faulty mailing lists. They also explained the benefits of having a secure, accessible and expansive vote-by-mail operation and one expert notably suggested that rather than asking voters to request mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania should send ballots to all registered voters. Below are their answers to our questions, edited for clarity and length.

What needs to be done to maximize turnout and legitimacy for an election during a pandemic?

Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting: You want to make sure that ballots can be tracked. There are tools to do that. The U.S. Postal Service has tools to do that that other states have adopted. That allows jurisdictions to track the ballot going from the jurisdiction to the voter, and the voter to track it going back to the jurisdiction.

We already have restrictions on delivery of absentee ballots (to prevent fraud), and maybe they need to be relaxed in a certain way, but not too much.

Juliet Zavon, fair elections advocate in Pittsburgh: In the best of all worlds, a ballot application would be mailed to every single person. Or better still, mail them their ballot.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, they’re on lockdown as we are but the major grocery chain there, Kroger, has applications for mail-in ballots.

Rich Garella, cofounder of Protect Our Vote Philly: The state needs to make sure that every voter is fully aware of how to get a mail-in ballot and how to send it in, and has to make it easy for people to do that … So far, we haven’t really seen how they’re going to do it.

I would add that the state department here and the county election boards need to reach out to those places that have been doing it, and the state department in particular needs to really listen to local election officials in Pennsylvania and not make rules and requirements that are impossible.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition: My organization has put out a recommendation for a state like Pennsylvania that they essentially centralize their outbound and inbound mail process. Everyone in the state would get the same looking ballot, the same looking envelope and instructions. There would be consistency.

The second piece of that is centralizing or regionalizing the inbound process. What I mean by that is setting up a large processing facility like what exists in a lot of the western states, in that the ballots would essentially come back to all one place with one return address, and there would be a large processing center that requires less people to run.

Christopher Deluzio, policy director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security: Without any changes made to the law, the most important thing the state and county should be doing is encouraging every eligible voter who can vote by mail to do it and really educating the public on that this option exists.

The next thing I would love to see, and we certainly have time to do it for November, is to see a change in our law so that every registered voter in the commonwealth receives an application for their mail-in ballot by mail. As of now, you have to affirmatively request one.

I would ideally want to see that coupled with a period of early in-person voting, which we haven’t had traditionally in Pennsylvania … By stretching it out over a period of time, we can reduce congestion in the polling places and really provide that option safely while still pushing hard for voters who are able to to vote by mail.

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What are some of the risks and vulnerabilities associated with mail-in voting?

Rich Garella: You get problems with accessibility for some voters. You get differences between different populations of voters who may have more limited access to computers to apply for ballots with.

Pennsylvania has never had adequate procedures. So here, there is an opportunity to create a set of procedures statewide that would be transparent and verifiable by the public that could address the problem of public trust.

There has not been enough study of the uptick of vote by mail in different communities. You look at a place like Philadelphia, it’s never been done here … The law as it is now puts enormous and dangerous power into the hands of election boards, giving them the ability to reduce and consolidate the number of polling locations without really any appeals process, on a timeline that pretty much precludes judicial review. This means that communities could end up being underserved.

Maryn Formley, executive chair and founder of Voter Empowerment Education and Enrichment Movement [VEEEM]: I worry about the amount of work that it will take, and how long does the county have to process those.

Robert Stein, political scientist at Rice University: It is true that some of the most frequent means of defrauding an election is by mail. The most common one of course is by intercepting a mail ballot that you ordered for somebody that never ordered the mail ballot.

There are other concerns of fraud. Vote-by-mail is not a secret ballot. It comes to the house … My fear would be that households might find that there are coercive measures taken by someone in the household. There’s ballot harvesting, where people harvest your mail ballots and they don’t just offer to mail them, they take them and fill them out for you.

And that says nothing about getting ballots to the wrong addresses, or simply not getting ballots to people because the voting registration lists have incomplete addresses. That’s a big job. If [a county] went to the USPS and said here’s my voter registration list, tell me if you can deliver mail, they’d say, “Guess what? You’ve got 2.5 million. We’re going to miss about 200,000.” That’s a little less than 10%. Elections are close.

Juliet Zavon: This state does have a history of coercion with voting. In unions, or other things, you have to vote a certain way. The more mail-in ballots you have, the easier that is to do. If you vote in person, nobody can stand over you or threaten you. They can’t see your ballot.

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What are some benefits that come out of increasing the proportion of voters who vote by mail?

Robert Stein: One of the big advantages of vote-by-mail is people get the ballot before Election Day. They can sit at home, they can take a day or two, they can bring a phone or a laptop, which you’re not allowed to do [at a polling place], and they can ask their spouse or significant other. It’s a take-home exam. On average a voter will spend 2-3 minutes in a polling booth. They’re not going to vote for [a contest] they haven’t thought of before they walked in.

The evidence is that [voters] should be extremely confident that their vote will be counted. They should be as confident in the election officials as they are in themselves filling out the ballot properly. Election officials really do a good job … I wish the voters were as competent in filling out paper ballots. Getting an X in a square box can be a real challenge for people.

Amber McReynolds: It’s been proven that fraud does not increase in mail ballot states. In some cases it decreases. This is a secure method of voting that relies on validity, verifying a voter’s signature, verifying a ballot in advance before it’s counted.

They’ve even seen a decrease of issues in their elections that they have to refer to authorities for investigation. It’s a proven method, and there’s a lot of myths around it, but certainly it’s a secure and safe way to vote.

The only primary elections that have continued without disruption have been the states that have mailed a ballot to everyone … They have had no disruption and they have all had record turnout.

Chris Deluzio: I think one of the main and strongest security benefits of the mail-in ballot is that it is in fact a paper ballot that we can tabulate by scanner or by hand if necessary. We can audit it.

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Is it a security concern that the state now allows counties to begin processing mail-in ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, instead of after the polls close?

Rich Garella: No votes should be counted before the polls close, period … If you count ballots on the day of, then the people doing that job and the people observing it learn what’s happening in the election … This is hugely valuable information that can change election outcomes, and insiders should not have special access to that information. You’re just asking for trouble.

Chris Deluzio: The law says that they may not disclose the result of any portion of that pre-canvas meeting. To the extent that anyone would do that, they’d be breaking the law

I think that says more about the actor there than it says about the law, which says that they can’t be disclosing the results of those pre-canvas meetings.

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Should the upcoming election be conducted solely by mail to cut down on the public health risk?

Rich Garella: If you end up in a situation where there’s some in-person voting, but not enough people are aware that they should have mailed it in, those in-person voting centers are going to be swamped by people, and they’ll be disenfranchised whether it’s by long lines or by simple fear of being in a crowded place and trying to vote there.

As the weeks go by, I think there’s a decent chance that there’s going to be a realization that in-person voting is simply too dangerous to conduct.

Maryn Formley: The hand-marked paper ballot is only for people who can access that type of communication. If they don’t have that type of communication [to complete hand-marked ballots], they were supposed to have electronic machines also.

I think they would need to make that plan clear.

Robert Stein: There are so many steps for doing a mail election, and none of them are particularly expensive or time consuming, but they’re not things these jurisdictions have done on the scale that might be needed to deal with the Coronavirus. My fear is that, unless they make that decision literally in the next week, that it is hard to imagine they could scale up mail-in balloting to where it was close to 50% of ballots cast.

We’ve got to figure out ways for people to ballot in-person.

Amber McReynolds: Our recommendation is that any state does 100% of mailing out the ballots, not making the voter fill out a request … with preserving some level of in-person voting.

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It’s been estimated that for an election with more mail-in voting, it will take much longer to get a result. Is there a fear that this will cause undue public suspicion around the results?

Chris Deluzio: I’m of the view that we ought to be shifting our expectations a bit, just to reinforce for the public that it’s not necessarily nefarious if things take a bit longer … I think shifting our norms and expectations around getting instant results would help to lay the groundwork for people to not be so worried or alarmed if they’re not getting those results right at 8 p.m. on election night.

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Should Pennsylvania provide postage for voters to return their ballots? It doesn’t currently.

Marian Schneider: I think because of this emergency that that would be a good thing. In fact, I would hope that if there were any federal funding, that it could go to defray the cost of the return mail postage. A lot of states already do that.

Chris Deluzio: Forcing the cost of postage for mail-in ballots and applications onto voters can be a financial burden to some and could potentially disenfranchise voters — especially when so many are out of work or facing financial hardship right now.

Rich Garella: For sending in ballots, finding and dealing with postage is a step that may discourage voters too. Ballots and ballot applications should have pre-paid postage. This is often called "business reply mail" — the payer is only charged for the pieces that are actually mailed back.

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Charlie Wolfson is a freelance reporter in Pittsburgh and a senior journalism student at Northeastern University. He can be reached at wolfson.ch@gmail.com.

How to vote by mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania

If you are registered to vote in Pennsylvania, you can apply for a mail-in ballot. Applications can be completed online with a valid Pennsylvania driver’s license or photo ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. If you don't have either form of identification, you can apply by mail using the forms of identification on this list. Paper applications can be downloaded as a PDF and either mailed to your county election office or dropped off in person. Mail-in ballot applications can also be filled out at your county election office or requested through a signed letter sent to the county election office, including all of the information required by an official application.

County election offices must receive mail-in ballot applications by 5:00 pm on the Tuesday before the scheduled election.

Your mail-in ballot will be mailed to you along with an official envelope and a secrecy sleeve. After marking your ballot, put it inside the secrecy sleeve to be sealed in the official envelop and mailed or dropped off in person. The outer envelop must be signed. Mail-in ballots must be received by the county election office by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Election offices are required to begin processing received and certified mail-in ballots 50 days before the election. Applications can be submitted before this 50-day period.

If you are worried that your mail-in ballot won’t be received by the election office in time, voters can vote using a provisional ballot at a polling place. However, if your mail-in ballot is successfully processed then the mail-in ballot will be counted as your vote instead of the provisional ballot.

Update (4/13/2020): This text was revised to reflect additional information from the state on obtaining and completing a mail-in ballot.

— By PublicSource editorial intern Grace McGinness. Nicole Brambila updated.

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