Due to a slew of lawsuits and other issues, the commonwealth, which has drawn intense interest from Democrats and Republicans after June’s disastrous primary, has not finalized its ballot less than eight weeks before Election Day.
The state’s Democratic Party remains in court battling to keep the Green Party off the ballot. The pending legal dispute has led to a delay in certification of the November ballot, and as a result, all Pennsylvania county election officials who this year could have started offering absentee or mail-in ballots, as well as in-person early absentee voting, starting September 14 are in a holding pattern.
Pennsylvania, which President Donald Trump won by less than 1 point in 2016, is just one example of a critical swing state that has come under enhanced scrutiny for elections laws that could further confuse and delay results on Election Day.
“I’m concerned right now, only because once we do receive state certification, there are quite a few steps that you have to do,” Debbie Olivieri, Berks County Director of Elections, told CNN. The county, which includes Reading, remains a battleground. “You can’t just real quick turn it over and have everything ready. It’s going to take some time to do those other steps.”
Olivieri has worked as an election official for over 30 years. In her county, she usually sees about 10,000 to 12,000 absentee ballot applications during a presidential general election year. This year, Pennsylvania is offering voters an option to vote absentee with an excuse or use a mail-in ballot without an excuse. Olivieri said she has 50,000 absentee and mail-in ballot applications that have already been approved right now. She can’t send ballots to them until the state ballot is finalized.
“As of right now, we keep telling everybody the end of September, beginning of October” for when the ballots will be ready to send to voters, Olivieri said. “We are just estimating until we go ahead with our ballot processing.”
In what some may consider a risky move in an already unprecedented election, Berks County is also using new touch screen voting machines this year for the first time. These machines have to be tested with the approved ballot before ballots can be sent out as well, which will take time, Olivieri said.
Election officials in Montgomery, Chester and Lancaster counties told CNN on Friday that they are processing the mail-in and absentee ballot applications now while they wait for the ballot to be finalized.
The delay in finalizing the ballot is a troubling sign for Pennsylvania, which already had a primary marked by a weeks-long delay in ballot counting.
Not repeating the chaos of the primary is a goal for top Democrats in the state.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf met with Philadelphia Democratic officials at the end of the summer to discuss measures to ensure November’s election would go smoothly, according to a Democratic operative in the state.
Wolf told officials he was committed to using whatever resources necessary, including raising funds and purchasing equipment to help both process and open mail-in ballots since the state is allowing anyone to request one this year.
The governor also stressed the need for a robust election operation that includes well-staffed polling places for Election Day, satellite locations for people to pick up and drop off their ballots and plenty of drop boxes.
Pennsylvania Democrats have largely come to terms with the idea that the state will not have results on Election Day. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that is not legally allowed to open, process or count mail-in ballots until the morning of Election Day.
Officials are aware that any sort of massive delays or chaos could call into question the eventual results in the state, where Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have remained in a tight race.
Democrats are pushing Republicans to make changes to the election law that would allow mail-in ballots to be opened three weeks before Election Day.
State Democrats are also concerned that the President’s messaging against mail-in voting is resonating across party lines. Trump has insisted Americans vote in person and raised doubts, without any evidence, about the legitimacy of voting by mail.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted a Wall Street Journal editorial about mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, saying the state’s democratic governor “should not be allowed to defraud the PEOPLE of the UNITED STATES!” The editorial, however, did not suggest mail-in voting will lead to voter fraud, as the President has suggested multiple times.
One Democratic operative in Pennsylvania told CNN there was a large party effort in the state to educate voters on what their options were outside of mail-in voting, as well as to bolster in-person voting capabilities should people decide to do that instead of mail in their ballots.
“(President Trump) has succeeded in making people scared and distrustful of the post office. There were large swaths of voters who already weren’t sure about the post office, so people need to understand they have other options,” the operative told CNN.