In Pa., officials prepare for coronavirus, civil unrest to disrupt Tuesday primary

Black Lives Matter

In Philadelphia, city officials said they were working with police and other emergency personnel to prevent violence from disrupting voting. The city planned to open 190 polling places instead of the usual 831, but with a late surge of poll workers canceling their commitment out of fear of unrest, there was no guarantee even that number would open Tuesday morning.

“This was already a difficult task with the pandemic, and the current events have only made that difficult task harder,” said Nick Custodio, a deputy city commissioner. “We won’t know anything until first thing in the morning.”

In Delaware County, a large suburb of Philadelphia, officials said they had fulfilled an unprecedented 80,000 mail-ballot requests. But 6,000 of them went out just Monday — giving those voters little wiggle room to return them on time. Officials said they would be unable to fulfill another 400 ballot requests at all because of insufficient staffing and time.

To help alleviate the crush, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) extended the mail ballot deadline by a week in six counties where the pandemic and protests have been most acute, but ballots still must be postmarked or received in person by 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“This is an unprecedented time for Pennsylvania and our nation as we face a major public health crisis and civil unrest during an election,” Wolf said in a statement. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and I want to ensure that voters can cast their ballot and that it is received in time.”

Pennsylvania, notably the ring of suburbs around Philadelphia, is widely expected to be a crucial battleground in the November presidential election. If thousands of voters are unable to cast ballots in the primary, election officials will be under tremendous pressure to better prepare for a general election that four years ago was decided by the narrowest of margins.

Eight states plus the District will hold primaries on Tuesday. All of them have experienced a surge in interest in mail balloting, and several have experienced hiccups or worse.

In Indiana, the clerk of the state’s most populous county warned last week that some voters would not receive their ballots in time — and that thousands of ballots might not be counted because they would not be returned by the deadline of noon on Election Day.

Voters in Maryland and Rhode Island also complained about not receiving their requested ballots. In the District, election officials resorted to hand delivering ballots that were at risk of not arriving on time.

The Pennsylvania primary is the state’s first major contest since state lawmakers expanded absentee balloting to all voters last fall, long before they could have predicted how dramatically interest in voting by mail would surge as a result of the pandemic.

The onset of violent protests after Floyd, who was black, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, compounded the challenges that Tuesday will bring.

Philadelphia has been under a mandatory 6 p.m. curfew since Sunday. The city’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Lawrence S. Krasner, announced Monday that his office would not prosecute residents who violate the curfew to vote or work the polls.

Meanwhile, former vice president Joe Biden was scheduled to deliver a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning.

Wolf ordered his deadline extension for mail ballots to apply to Philadelphia and two of its suburbs as well as the counties that include Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Erie.

Republicans fought efforts to extend the ballot deadline in Wisconsin’s spring elections in April. Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Reed said Monday the party was considering whether to bring legal action to block Wolf’s order.

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to vote, but we have an Election Day for a reason,” he said. “Postponing this deadline would require county election offices to verify ballots for weeks after the election, potentially delaying the outcome and opening the door for unnecessary litigation.”

In Philadelphia, the crunch for in-person voting access could be more acute in the city’s black enclaves, notably West and North Philadelphia, where requests for mail ballots were lower than in white areas, according to an analysis by Jonathan Tannen, a demographer who crunches city data.

And the challenges could repeat in other cities. In Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh, officials consolidated roughly 1,300 polling locations down to 147.

Elise Viebeck, Jenna Portnoy and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

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