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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for Pennsylvania Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: September 17, 2020
Published: August 20, 2020

This is part of the Bren­nan Center’s Toolkits for Activ­ists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Polit­ical Context  |  What’s in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Admin­is­ter­ing an elec­tion under pandemic condi­tions requires under­tak­ing steps to keep voting access­ible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the prob­lems Covid-19 poses, what prepared­ness meas­ures Pennsylvania has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some polit­ical context for your advocacy.


Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local offi­cials have a lot of respons­ib­il­ity over elec­tions. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state offi­cials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we high­light some examples of changes that local elec­tions offi­cials can also make with this symbol:🔸


Polit­ical Context

Below is a list of the relev­ant offi­cials and inform­a­tion about the legis­lat­ive session.

Governor: Tom Wolf (D)  

Secret­ary of the Common­wealth: Kathy Boock­var (D)

Legis­lature: House (R) Senate (R)

Legis­lat­ive Session: The legis­lature is sched­uled to adjourn on Novem­ber 30, 2020. Either the legis­lature or the governor can call a special legis­lat­ive session.

Local Elec­tions Offi­cials: In Pennsylvania, a number of county offi­cials share respons­ib­il­it­ies for admin­is­ter­ing elec­tions. You can look up indi­vidual county offi­cials here.

What Pennsylvania Has and What’s Needed

Three prior­it­ies. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elec­tions systems for success during a pandemic: regis­tra­tion, mail voting, and in-person voting.

Regis­tra­tion

Covid-19 may disrupt the tradi­tional ways Amer­ic­ans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or regis­ter­ing at govern­ment agen­cies. In the crucial weeks before the regis­tra­tion dead­line, postal service disrup­tions may lead many regis­tra­tion forms to arrive at elec­tion offices after the dead­line.

Prepar­at­ory Meas­ures Pennsylvania Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter regis­tra­tion

Changes Still Needed:

  • Prepare to extend online and mail voter regis­tra­tion dead­lines based on condi­tions in the state
  • Voter regis­tra­tion on Elec­tion Day

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previ­ous elec­tions. Allow­ing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Elec­tion Day and decreases the expos­ure risk to Covid-19.

Prepar­at­ory Meas­ures Pennsylvania Already Has Taken:

  • All voters can vote by mail without an excuse 
  • Online tool for request­ing an absentee or mail-in ballot
  • No ID require­ment for return of absentee or mail-in ballot
  • No notary or witness require­ment for return of absentee or mail-in ballot
  • Provides pre-paid post­age for voting by mail
  • Accepts late-arriv­ing ballots post­marked by Elec­tion Day

Changes Still Needed:

  • Provide a post-elec­tion notice and cure process for defects on absentee-ballot envel­ope, includ­ing signa­ture mismatch or miss­ing signa­tures
  • Send mail-ballot applic­a­tions to all voters who have not yet applied

In-Person Voting

Even with expan­ded mail voting oppor­tun­ity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disen­fran­chise voters without Inter­net and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accord­ance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Prepar­at­ory Meas­ures Pennsylvania Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure suffi­cient polling places are open and resourced on Elec­tion Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting loca­tions🔸
  • Take proper public health precau­tions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold train­ing sessions for polling-place work­ers well in advance of Elec­tion Day, so that elec­tion offi­cials can better anti­cip­ate prob­lems with staff­ing and logist­ics🔸
  • Increase access to curb­side voting at polling loca­tions

Advocacy Focus: Protect­ing Polling Places

No matter how prepared Pennsylvania is as a matter of policy, elec­tions offi­cials and advoc­ates must stay vigil­ant about ensur­ing safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for every­one all the way through Elec­tion Day. Here are some import­ant things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Pennsylvania and what rules govern the process:

  • Except in the event of an emer­gency, the county board of elec­tion must provide at least 5 days’ notice of any proposed polling change. The proposed change may not occur if the county board is presen­ted with a peti­tion object­ing to the change, signed by a major­ity of the registered elect­ors in the district.🔸
  • Port­able/movable or tempor­ar­ily construc­ted polling places are allowed if they are an adequate size and have adequate facil­it­ies.🔸
  • County boards of elec­tion are respons­ible for provid­ing polling places with adequate supplies.🔸

Key Dates for Pennsylvania Elec­tions

  • May 18, 2020: Dead­line to register to vote for the Primary Elec­tion
  • June 2, 2020: Primary Elec­tion Day
  • Octo­ber 19, 2020: Dead­line to register to vote for the General Elec­tion
  • Octo­ber 27, 2020 (5:00 p.m.): Dead­line for receipt of absentee-ballot and mail-ballot applic­a­tions at county elec­tions offices
  • Novem­ber 3, 2020: General Elec­tion Day