With VoteSafe Initiative, Both Parties Push PA Mail-In Ballots
PITTSBURGH – In close presidential elections, Pennsylvania often plays a pivotal role, meaning that the two major political parties spend a great deal of money and energy on get-out-the-vote efforts there. In addition – though they don’t like to talk about it much – politicos also look for ways to discourage voters on the other side from showing up on Election Day.
But these are no longer traditional times, so elected officials on both sides of the aisle have joined together in a statewide campaign called VoteSafe Pennsylvania to advocate for mail-in ballots for the 2020 presidential election.
“Now is a time for all Americans to stand up and put their country over their party,” said former congressman Patrick Murphy, a Bucks County Democrat.
“From the elderly grandmother to young people, everyone needs to understand that the process of mail-in voting is trustworthy, and if they want to vote in person they need to know how to do that safely.”
Murphy, who also once served as acting secretary of the U.S. Army, has joined forces with former Pennsylvania House Republican majority leader Dave Reed to chair VoteSafe Pennsylvania. The group launched its statewide information campaign on Tuesday.
“With everything going on here in 2020 and it happening to be a presidential election year as well, I think it's fair to say we have a really polarized nation right now politically,” Reed said in an interview. “This project is just focused on making sure people feel safe and secure in voting with the mail-in ballots. And for folks who want to go to an in-person ballot precinct, making sure those places are safe and that folks are comfortable in doing so.”
“The bottom line is just very simple,” Reed added. “We just want to make sure everybody has an opportunity to participate this year.”
The state’s primary earlier this year marked the first time that mail-in ballots were available to anyone who requested one. Previously the absentee ballot process was a prohibitive one, and utilized by less than 5% of voters. A state law passed last November eased the requirements, meaning that even before the coronavirus pandemic, election officials were expecting a brisk increase. But when the Pennsylvania primary coincided with the pandemic, mail-in votes were 17 times higher than normal, overwhelming the system in some places.
Some of the state’s 67 counties had their results tabulated within days. In others, it took nearly two weeks. Only Allegheny and Northampton counties had their results counted and posted in less than 24 hours.
According to data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State, the number of mail-in ballots was 1,224,215 out of a total vote number of 2,877,749. Traditional absentees were 236,231.
This meant that the number of Pennsylvanians who showed up in person at the polls on primary Election Day was 1,361,231, making it for the first time in this state’s history that in-person voting was eclipsed by votes received by mail.
On the eve of the election, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, citing civil unrest and a surge in ballots, signed an executive order for six counties to extend the deadline for county election offices to receive absentee or mail-in ballots to 5 p.m. June 9, though they had to be postmarked no later than Election Day itself -- June 2.
The data shows that 15,610 ballots statewide were not counted because they arrived late. A grand total of 37,119 were not counted because either the ballot was undeliverable, the label was canceled for one reason or another, or there was no signature accompanying the ballot.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania over Hillary Clinton by the slim margin of 40,000 votes -- the first time a Republican had won the Keystone State’s electoral votes since George H.W. Bush did it in 1988.
This suggests that if the 2020 race tightens, as many expect it will, every vote, mailed in or cast in person, is critical for either side. Getting people to trust the process is the tough part. President Trump has openly railed against mail-in voting, saying it is ripe for fraud. Liberals dismiss this fear, but recent cases of fraud in the neighboring states of New Jersey and West Virginia – and two prosecutions in Philadelphia -- show that voter fraud is real, and bipartisan.
The Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database provides a sampling of cases that demonstrate the vulnerabilities in the electoral process. Currently, the database has 1,285 documented cases of fraud.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a week after votes were cast that city elections officials had to stop counting votes several times to make sure no one had voted twice -- they flagged overlaps 40 times where people who had returned a mail ballot also voted in person.
This is where VoteSmart comes in.
“I think for a lot of folks, including myself, in America we'd like to get kind of beyond the polarization,” said Reed. “So [we’re] making sure everybody has the opportunity to participate so that they could believe in the outcome of that election. I think it's going to be essential for that to happen.”
The other potential quagmire is setting expectations for how long it takes to count mail-in ballots. With fewer voting precincts, a resurgence in COVID-19 infections, fewer poll workers and seemingly endless civil unrest, the last thing officials want is an election process that doesn’t work or that voters don’t trust.
If election night results drags into days or even weeks, that could happen.
“Everybody, at least in Pennsylvania, had their trial run in operating the system in the primary,” said Reed. “Hopefully it will be a much-improved system in the fall.”
On Monday the Pennsylvania Department of State announced that online applications to obtain a mail-in or absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 general election are now being accepted. The deadline to apply for one is 5 p.m. on Oct. 27.