Vote by mail

HARRISBURG — State officials are trying to get more voters to fill out and mail ballots to reduce the size of crowds at the polls in the state’s primary, now scheduled for June 2.

The effort comes as states across the country grapple with how to hold elections while responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

Ohio held its primary on Tuesday despite social-distancing efforts enacted to try to limit the spread of coronavirus.

On Monday, the Democratic commissioners of the New York Board of Elections made New York the first state to cancel its presidential primary.

Pennsylvania’s primary date is set by law, and lawmakers and the governor already agreed to move the state’s primary from April to June 2, said Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf.

Rather than altering the presidential primary — in which both the Republican nominee, President Donald Trump, and the Democratic nominee Joe Biden — have already been determined, state officials are focusing on the shift toward mail-in voting, she said.

Even before the state moved the primary because of the coronavirus outbreak, lawmakers in 2019 passed legislation that made mail-in ballots available to any voter who requests one.

“We have been conducting a comprehensive public education campaign to let voters know how easy and secure it is to vote by mail, including sending postcards, multiple emails, and this week beginning ads on bilingual radio, television and digital platforms,” Kensinger said. “This has been extremely successful to date and we expect it to continue.”

Close to 800,000 voters have already requested a mail-in ballot, including 375,000 requests submitted in the last week-and-a-half, she said.

Ray Murphy, executive director of Keystone Votes, a coalition of groups lobbying for election reforms, said it’s not clear how much benefit there would be in canceling the presidential primary while allowing local and state races to continue.

As there is more attention being placed on mail-in voting it may make more sense to hold the primary to give the election system a trial run before trying to hold the general election in the fall, he said.

Considering the circumstances, if the state were faced with a general election in a couple months instead of the primary, there’d probably be a lot more pressure to get the state to provide everyone with ballots and cover the cost of postage, he said.

“Voters are facing a difficult decision in being asked to choose between going to the polls, a process that’s familiar, but in a pandemic, or using a new process in mail-in voting that’s never been tested, he said.

Voters have until May 26 to apply for a mail-in ballot. Once a voter receives the ballot, he or she has until 8 p.m. on the day of the election to return it to have the vote counted.

The state’s plan for holding the primary during the coronavirus outbreak is scheduled to be the focus of a Senate hearing Thursday.

Secretary of State Kathryn Boockvar and the heads of the Pennsylvania Democratic and Republican parties are scheduled to testify before the Senate State Government Committee. County election officials are also supposed to be appearing before the committee.

“It is important to hear about the progress made thus far and the challenges still facing those on the front lines of administering our elections,” said state Sen. John DiSanto, the chairman of the Senate State Government Committee.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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