HARRISBURG — Voters heading to the polls on Tuesday for the state’s two-month delayed primary will experience differences from past years, including multiple COVID-19 related adjustments.
Election watchdogs say that due to changes, including new machines in many counties and excuse-free mail-in ballots, they were expecting this election might have the potential for problems even before the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic has amplified those concerns, said Suzanne Almeida, executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania.
“This was always going to be a challenging election,” she said. “We know there will be issues.”
The pandemic and the shutdown of the state it caused has made campaigning for this primary different than any other election in history, said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.
With social-distancing restrictions in place, candidates haven’t been able to use most of the traditional means candidates use to connect with voters -- particularly in state and local races -- such as knocking on doors or speaking to community groups, he said.
That means candidates have largely been forced to campaign virtually, using social media, Madonna said.
“Who knows what the turnout is going to be?” he said.
More than 1.8 million people have asked for ballots to vote by mail, compared to the just over 3 million total votes cast in the 2016 primary election.
Madonna said there are projections suggesting that more people will vote by mail in Philadelphia than there will be people who vote in-person.
Gov. Tom Wolf said it's not entirely clear how much the flood of mail-in votes will have on Tuesday's primary election other than it will almost certainly translate into a longer wait for results.
Wolf said the state has allowed counties to begin preparing mail-in ballots earlier in the day, but added "no one knows" how the election will go.
"I would bet there will be delays," he said.
Wolf said he and First Lady Frances Wolf have already voted by mail-in ballot.
New machines, polling places
To prepare for the fall presidential election, the state ordered all counties to get new voting machines. As a result, voters across the state are still adjusting to using new equipment.
On top of that, the state last fall moved to allow mail-in voting. That proved to be a fortunate decision in that it created a way for people to vote without having to physically go to the polls when people are still trying to social distance, she said.
At the same time, county officials have been changing and consolidating polling places over concerns about staffing polling places. Most poll workers have traditionally been senior citizens who are now reluctant to potentially expose themselves to coronavirus by facing a parade of voters.
“Many counties have consolidated 60 percent of their polling places,” Almeida said. Some counties have cut the number of voting places even more, she said.
The state's two most populous counties, Philadelphia and Allegheny, alone are shifting from the more than 2,100 polling places they open in a typical election to fewer than 500 -- 3 in 4 regular locations in these jurisdictions will not be open on June 2, according to the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia election watchdog organization.
The move to close polling places could create concerns about access particularly for minority communities as the people who’ve been taking advantage of the state’s mail-in voting option have been overwhelmingly white, Almeida said.
Ninety-one percent of the applications for mail-in ballots have been from white voters, she said.
We’ll have a lot of clarity” about what problems will need to be addressed before the fall election after Tuesday’s primary, she said.
Absentee and mail-in ballots must be received in the county election office by 8 pm on Election Day. As we are now within just a few days of that deadline, we recommend that voters consider delivering their ballots in person to make sure they arrive in time to be counted,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said. “Contact your county election office or check their website for their hours. Many counties are also providing secure ballot drop-off locations or drop boxes for easy delivery of ballots.”
Mail-in and absentee voters should be aware that a postmark does not count; ballots must be received by the county by 8 pm on June 2. Voters who applied for a mail-in ballot but do not receive it by Election Day can vote by provisional ballot at their polling place.
Boockvar urged voters going to the polls on Tuesday to practice the following precautions to protect themselves, other voters and poll workers:
-- Wear a mask.
-- Wash your hands before and after voting.
-- Bring your own blue- or black-ink pen to use.
-- Practice social distancing, maintaining at least a six-foot distance from others.
-- Follow poll workers’ instructions.
The state is providing counties with masks and face shields for poll workers, along with hand sanitizer, floor marking tape and other supplies for polling places, Boockvar said.
Madonna said that interest in Tuesday’s primary will vary by region depending on state and local races, with the presidential primary essentially resolved -- Bernie Sanders is on the ballot, but Joe Biden is the presumed nominee for the Democrats and President Donald Trump is the presumed nominee for the Republican Party.
He added though that even with few contested races, people might vote just because the political climate has people more engaged now.
“Polarization will drive turnout,” he said.
With an open race for auditor general, there are six candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for that office. Timothy DeFoor, the Dauphin County controller, is the only candidate seeking the Republican Party nomination for auditor general.
On the Democratic side, the crowded field includes:
-- Scott Conklin, a state representative from Centre County;
-- Michael Lamb, controller for the City of Pittsburgh;
-- Tracie Fountain, former director of the Audit Bureau in the Auditor General’s office;
-- Rose Marie Davis, an accountant from Monroe County;
-- Nina Ahmad, former deputy mayor in Philadelphia;
-- Christina Hartman, an independent consultant for nonprofits from Lancaster County, who ran for Congress in 2016.
Other than the two terms served by Republican Barbara Hafer from 1989-1997, Democrats have held the office of auditor general since 1961.
Incumbent Attorney General Josh Shapiro is unopposed in the Democratic Primary and his presumed Republican challenge Heather Heidelbaugh, a Pittsburgh attorney, is unopposed, as well. Similarly, incumbent Treasurer Joe Torsella is unopposed in the Democratic primary and his presumed opponent Stacy Garrity, an accountant from Bradford County, is unopposed, as well.
All 18 members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation are running for another term, but only two have primary opponents. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is challenged by Andy Meehan for the GOP nomination in his Bucks County-based district in Philadelphia's suburbs, while Rep. Mike Doyle is defending his Pittsburgh-based seat in a Democratic primary contest against Jerry Dickinson.
There are several closely watched primary contests among would-be challengers.
In Rep. Matt Cartwright's northeastern Pennsylvania district, six Republicans are seeking the nomination to challenge him. Two Republicans are seeking the nomination to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Susan Wild in her Allentown-based district. Two Democrats are seeking the nomination to challenge Fitzpatrick, while two Democrats — including DePasquale — are seeking the nomination to challenge Rep. Scott Perry in his Harrisburg-based district.
In the Legislature, there are 17 seats opening up due to retirements in the state House, which currently has a 110-93 Republican majority. Eleven are Republican-held seats being vacated by Speaker Mike Turzai and Reps. Cris Dush, Matt Gabler, Mark Keller, Mike Tobash, Justin Simmons, Marcia Hahn, Garth Everett, Marcy Toepel, Tom Murt and Steve Barrar.
Fifteen Democrats and 10 Republicans have opposition in the primary.
About a quarter of the House are certain to be back next year — they have neither primary nor general election opposition.
Nearly half of all members face only an opponent in the fall.
Just 15 state representatives out of 203 seats — nine Republicans and six Democrats — have both primary and general election contests this year.
That includes Tim Bonner, R-Mercer County, who was just elected in a special election, who is faced by Grove City councilman Scott Jaillet. The winner of that contest is due to face Democrat Phil Heasley, who is unopposed in the Democratic Primary.
as Murt and Barrar, among the increasingly rare Republican districts in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The six House Democrats who are not running again are Reps. Harry Readshaw, Bill Kortz, Neal Goodman, Tom Caltagirone, Steve McCarter and Rosita Youngblood.
Half of the 50-member Senate is also up this year, with four senators facing no major party challenger in the primary or general elections: Philadelphia Democratic Sens. Sharif Street, John Sabatina and Vince Hughes; and Schuylkill County Republican Sen. Dave Argall.
Two incumbent senators face primary opposition on June 2, both Democrats: Minority Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County and Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery.
There are two open Senate seats, as President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, are retiring.
There are three Democrats seeking the nomination to run to fill Dinniman’s vacancy and one Republican running to oppose the winner of that contest.
There are three Republicans seeking the nomination to run to fill Scarnati’s vacancy.
Only one other Senate race has three candidates seeking a nomination -- there are three Democrats vying to challenge state Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland County, in the fall.
An Election Protection 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) hotline will be available to answer calls from Pennsylvania voters experiencing problems at the polls, including issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hotline will be available for the duration of Pennsylvania’s election day – polls open in Pennsylvania from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The hotline is a resource for voters who seek to confirm their voter registration status, find their polling location, or report any complaints regarding the voting process.
The Election Protection coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also carries out its work through voter education, advocacy with election officials, roving poll monitors and rapid response litigation when necessary to protect the vote.
“The 866-OUR-VOTE Election Protection hotline is a resource for all eligible voters in Pennsylvania who seek to participate in the primary election. We are particularly focused on ensuring that voters impacted by the pandemic are able to access absentee ballots and are aware of in-person voting opportunities on Tuesday,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.