PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Getting The November Election Right
The Senate State Government Committee heard from state and county election officials last week on the changes they recommend to make sure the November election comes off without a hitch.
Election officials said the June Primary uncovered a variety of weaknesses in the current system, many of them dealing with the new mail-in ballot option that delayed election results significantly in many counties.
Both state and county officials said it was critical counties be given more time to “pre-canvass” or “pre-processing” mail-in ballots– getting them ready to feed into scanning equipment for counting on election day, verifying voter eligibility and other tasks.
Some have suggested allowing this prep work to start as far as 21 days for election day.
Several legislators have expressed a concern about actually starting to count the ballots before election day and having the results possibly leaking.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said 1,500,000 voters cast their votes by mail-in ballot in the primary and 1.3 million people voted in person and officials anticipate the mail-in numbers will increase dramatically.
Officials also asked that a requirement that poll workers live in the districts they are working in be permanently waved to accommodate the expected shortage of people to work the polls, even with consolidation of polling locations due to the pandemic.
Snyder County election officials warned against permanent consolidation of polling place because it could lead to disenfranchising voters, but acknowledged they had no choice in the June Primary because of the shortage of poll workers.
Other changes recommended include making the deadline to register to vote the same date as the date to apply for a mail-in ballot and allowing voters to return mail-in ballots to polling locations.
Lawrence Tabas, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, expressed concerns about using drop boxes for returning mail-in ballots, repeating the key argument of the Trump Campaign lawsuit against the state, that drop boxes were not authorized by law.
Nancy Patton Mills, the chair of the state Democratic Committee, said mail-in balloting will be critical in this election and it was not feasible for voters to drive to their county seat to drop off their ballot in some of the larger counties.
She noted thousands of voters were disenfranchised in the Primary because their ballots were not received in time.
Both Republicans and Democrats are supporting mail-in ballots, unlike in other states.
The Lycoming County elections director said there was not time to waste to make the changes needed for the November election to run smoothly.
“We need time to get our supply streams organized. We need to train poll workers. We need to finalize documentation. Those things don’t happen overnight.” Read more here.
Nearly everyone testifying noted the cost of the Primary and the November election will be more than anyone expects because of mail-in ballots, COVID-19 and the expected voter turnout.
Click Here for a video of the hearing and for written testimony.
In addition to hearings in the Senate and House, a report required by the General Assembly reviewing the June Primary is due from the Department of State on August 1.
Currently, the last day to register to vote for the November 3 election is October 19. The last day to request a mail-in ballot is October 19.
With the House not scheduled to come back into session until September 15 and the Senate having no firm return date yet, the timetable for legislative action will be short.
See You In Court
On July 22, the spat between Lebanon County and Gov. Wolf over the release of $12.8 million of COVID-19 relief money went from the political arena to the court system. The county’s Republican commissioners filed a lawsuit against the Governor asking for the release of the money accusing the Governor of “gross abuse of power” and “acting like a ‘de facto king.’” Read more here.
For his part, Gov. Wolf doubled down on the criticism of Lebanon County earlier in the week at a live press event saying there were consequences for Lebanon reopening early and these are the consequences.
Republican lawmakers again helped organize a rally on the Capitol steps July 22 to protest the requirement to wear masks and to highlight the negative impacts of the Governor’s latest restrictions on bars and restaurants.
They, of course, weren’t wearing masks or social distancing at the rally.
The Governor’s Office responded by saying, “Pennsylvania Republicans continue to follow lock step with the Trump Administration’s policies of ignoring the danger of COVID-19, putting people’s lives in danger, and refusing to take simple and non-controversial steps like mask wearing to stop the spread of the disease.” Read more here.
The day before the rally, President Trump, who for months refused to wear a mask, now says wearing one is ‘patriotic.” He also said the pandemic was going to get worse before it gets better. Read more here.
Counties Of Concern
On July 24, the Department of Health updated its data dashboard announcing the statewide percent-positive results when up to 4.7 percent from 4.4 percent last week.
The agency also identified 14 counties of concern because of their percent positive results went above a 5 percent threshold of concern: Beaver (8.7 percent), Armstrong (8.6 percent), Franklin (7.7 percent), Mercer (7.6 percent), Allegheny (6.6 percent), Lawrence (6.2 percent), Chester (6.0 percent), Philadelphia (5.6 percent), Fayette (5.4 percent), York (5.4 percent), Dauphin (5.3 percent), Delaware (5.3 percent), Bedford (5.1 percent) and Greene (5.1 percent).
See You In September?
School districts and colleges are continuing to work on their reopening plans in what can only be described as a very “fluid” situation with both state and CDC school guidance changing and the trend of COVID-19 cases trending upward in Pennsylvania.
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine Thursday said what everyone was thinking– whether students return to in-person classes will hinge on what the case counts will be later in August. Read more here.
Both the Secretary and Gov. Wolf again said Pennsylvania is also being negatively affected by what is happening in other states with the exponential growth of cases to having virus test results dramatically delayed because of that growth. Read more here.
Self-Quarantine States Added
The Department of Health added Missouri and Wyoming to the list of states residents returning from should self-quarantine as a precaution. This brings to 20 the number of states on that list. Read more here.
Another Virus Hits
And, just for good measure, the Department of Health began a case count for a new virus last week– West Nile Virus– when it reported the first human case in Potter County on July 23.
This virus is carried by mosquitoes, so reasonable precautions against mosquito bites and overturning cans and other containers where mosquitoes breed are all things the public has gotten used to doing. Read more here.
West Nile Virus has been around for years and is milder than COVID-19, but has resulted in some deaths in Pennsylvania.
Of course, then there’s Lyme Disease carried by ticks which can be very debilitating where Pennsylvania leads the nation in cases– 9,009 last year. Read more here.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,015 on July 19 to 7,118 deaths on July 26. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 101,027 on July 19 to 107,425 on July 26.
For the week July 12 – 18 , there were 37,986 unemployment claims, down 6,812 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
About 90,000 Pennsylvanians are still waiting for answers on their unemployment claims, according to media reports. Read more here.
A Rasmussen Poll in Pennsylvania released July 22 had Vice President Joe Biden edging out President Trump 48 to 45 percent, but when ‘leaners’ were taken into consideration 51 percent said they would vote for Biden if the election were held today, while 46 percent would stick with Trump. Read more here.
The same poll found 57 percent of voters approved of the job Gov. Wolf was doing.
A new Fox News Poll released July 23 had Biden leading Trump 50 to 39 percent in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
Again, it’s a long way to November.
The House remains at the call of the House Speaker, but is scheduled to return to voting session on September 15.
The House Republican Policy Committee is scheduled to have a hearing on the impact of Gov. Wolf’s latest restrictions on bars and restaurants and the Human Services Committee has a hearing scheduled on mental health and the pandemic as well as a meeting on a series of COVID-19-related bills.
The House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings on police reform and essential workers scheduled.
The Senate has not published its fall voting schedule and remains at the call of the President Pro Tempore.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee has an informational meeting schedule on the safe reopening of schools.