Former Gov. Ed Rendell believes Pennsylvania will pull off a safe, accurate vote this fall, but he hopes legislators change the law ahead of time so that mail-in ballots can be counted before the polls close on Nov. 3.
“I’m confident the vote will be safe and accurate, but not so confident that the count won’t be a fiasco,” says Rendell. “Right now, the statute says for mail votes, they can only begin counting at 8 p.m. on Election Day, like they count in-person votes. That’s got to change. They should allow the vote to be counted as it comes in. That’s what they do in states that have early voting.”
Rendell and Pennsylvania’s four other living ex-governors — Tom Corbett, Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh — as well as former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, are among early leaders to endorse a statewide campaign launched by VoteSafe Pennsylvania to ensure that all voters have access to safe voting options.
The bipartisan coalition is led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dave Reed and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who also served as the U.S. under secretary and acting secretary of the Army.
“It is highly unlikely that polling locations will operate as usual in November, or that the voting experience will be anything close to normal, given the lingering effects of COVID-19,” says Reed. “We need to do all we can to ensure Pennsylvania voters have accessible, secure mail-in ballots and safe in-person voting sites.”
For the primary election, delayed until June because of the pandemic, Allegheny County consolidated its polling places to 147, from more than 800, and encouraged people to vote by mail. Gov. Tom Wolf extended the mail-in ballot deadline by a week for Allegheny and five other counties.
Still, there were problems reported by voters, poll workers and election officials. Some voters say they never received mail-in ballots; others received more than one. Some say they mailed their ballots but they were returned. And having fewer polling locations, with new rules, caused some confusion.
In Philadelphia, says Rendell, “the Election Bureau couldn’t get it done.” He worries what might happen if Pennsylvania’s count in November is critical to the presidential election and the state’s results are delayed — perhaps by days. “It would be a fiasco.”
Pennsylvania “took a giant step towards ensuring that every vote counts by legalizing mail by choice,” he says. “Any Pennsylvania voter to request a mailed ballot, as long as it is returned by Election Day, is guaranteed the ballot will be counted. That ensures the safety of the vote by mail and in person.”
In addition to the former governors, others to endorse the VoteSafe Pennsylvania initiative include several current and former elected officials and nonprofit and healthcare organizations. They’re advocating for secure mail-in ballots and safe, in-person voting sites, and working to raise awareness among Pennsylvanians about the voting options available under the state’s constitution and county election laws.
Murphy notes that members of the armed forces have voted by mail since the Civil War. It’s important to take steps to keep voters safe and ensure the integrity of elections, he says.
“Whether it’s an elderly grandparent, a loved one who is immunocompromised, or simply someone who is fearful about contracting COVID-19, every Pennsylvanian needs to know they do not have to jeopardize their health to vote,” says Murphy.
Polls have shown that a majority of Americans support voting by mail, especially if the coronavirus outbreak continues this fall.
One in four Americans votes by mail; 31 million voters did so in the midterm elections in 2018. All states allow some form of absentee voting, and five states conduct their elections completely by mail. The group emphasizes that despite myths about voting by mail, the method is secure and does not give one political party an advantage over the other.
States must ensure they have up-to-date addresses, tracking systems and verification methods, VoteSafe Pennsylvania notes on its website.
“It’s essentially the same as an absentee ballot,” says Rendell. Mayor of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2000, Rendell was a former district attorney in that city and also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election.
Pennsylvania has more than 8.6 million registered voters. Among the 900,112 registered voters in Allegheny County are 523,747 Democrats and 252,083 Republicans, according to the Department of State.