Full Press Release from Bucks County
New voting equipment and election law changes will give Bucks County voters greater security and flexibility this election year. But the conversion to verifiable, hand-marked paper ballots and expanded absentee and mail-in voting also could slow the reporting of election results to the public, the county’s new Board of Elections learned at its first meeting this week.
“This year we are opting for a ballot that can’t be harmed,” County Commissioners’ Chair Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia said during Wednesday’s meeting in Doylestown. “So (voters) are going to have to be a little more patient” in waiting for results to be tallied and posted.
Marseglia, who along with fellow commissioners Bob Harvie and Gene DiGirolamo compose the elections board, referred to significant changes in state-mandated equipment and procedures that will be in effect here for the first time this year.
The biggest change is a new fleet of voting machines that scan and store hand-marked paper ballots, replacing the county’s old electronic machines. Touted as more secure and verifiable than the old machines, the new Clear Ballot systems will be in use here for the first time this spring.
The 2020 elections are also the first to be held since the passage of Act 77 of 2019, considered the most significant change to Pennsylvania’s Election Code in decades. Gov. Wolf signed it into law on Oct. 31.
Among other provisions, Act 77 enables voters to cast their ballots by mail up to 50 days before an election, if the ballot is ready, without requiring them to provide a reason. For more details of the new law, click here: https://www.votespa.com/About-Elections/Pages/Voting-Reforms.aspx
While the mail-in option is expected to vastly increase the number of early votes cast, it also will change the way that they are counted. Previously, absentee ballots were sent from the Board of Elections office in Doylestown to individual polling places, where they were counted at the close of voting on Election Night.
The new act requires mail-in and absentee ballots to be kept at the Board of Elections office, where the counting must begin within three days after the election and conclude by the eighth day. But in addition to scanning those ballots, elections workers in Doylestown will also have to verify that nobody who cast a mail-in ballot also voted provisionally at a polling place.
All of which could delay the mail-in tallies.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Board of Elections Director Thomas Freitag said it was unlikely that mail-in ballots could be counted the night of the election, and possibly not for a few days later.
“So if there’s an election that’s somewhat close, it’s really going to be up in the air until two, three days later,” DiGirolamo said.
Another challenge will be educating and acclimating voters and elections workers to the new Clear Ballot voting systems. An extensive schedule of public training sessions throughout the county was announced this week (details here: https://tinyurl.com/sjnxyat), and poll workers were sent a separate schedule of trainings as well.
On Election Day, voters will encounter special voting tables with partitions for privacy at each polling place. There will be at least one table at each precinct, which will allow up to four people to mark their votes at one time.
Marseglia said that larger polling places would need additional tables. The board agreed to provide more tables to about 20 of the largest precincts, and to have extra privacy dividers available if needed to speed up voting.
Once the hand-marked ballots are filled out by voters, they will be fed into scanners, which record the votes and deposit the physical ballots into containers. The paper ballots and USB sticks will be transported to the Board of Elections, where they can be uploaded to the county’s unofficial online results.
“But it won’t be as instantaneous as it was in the past,” Freitag said.
Adding to the urgency of scheduling poll-worker training and voter education was last week’s announcement that a special election for DiGirolamo’s former state House seat will be held March 17 in Bensalem. The seat became vacant when DiGirolamo was elected to the Board of County Commissioners in November.
In response to that announcement, elections officials scheduled two additional voter training sessions at the Bensalem Municipal Building, 2400 Byberry Road, prior to the special election. One will be held Feb. 26 from 5 to 8 p.m.; the other March 10 from 1 to 4 p.m.
The countywide general primary will be held April 28.