In-Person Voting On Primary Election Day Will Feel Different Due To Coronavirus Concerns

Jun 2, 2020

Tuesday is primary election day in Pennsylvania, which the state postponed from April because of the coronavirus. Besides the date change, this year’s primary will also feel different with potentially longer lines at polling places even though fewer voters are expected to show up. 

Denise Meyer, an election judge in Centre County, said she’ll be working at her precinct in Ferguson Township for the primary, because she feels an obligation.

“Someone has to,” Meyer said. “I mean, it seems that, when I’ve gone to poll worker trainings and I’ve seen lots of poll workers, mostly the people who have that availability are a bit older, they’re retired. They’re at the highest risk for the virus, so have sort of backed out for their own safety and health concerns and their family’s health concerns.”

Meyer said she also understands some poll workers need to take care of kids at home, or some are simply wary for their health. 

In past elections, Meyer worked with six other poll workers at her precinct, with four of them working half a day. But this time, there will only be three others and they will all work from open to close. 

To keep voters 6 feet apart, Meyer’s precinct is also cutting the number of voting booths from seven to two. 

“It’s a conference room - it’s tiny. I think people are going to have to be prepared to stand in very long lines, both geometrically because of distancing between people in the lines and then because we’re only going to be able to take, you know, maybe two people at a time into the room to maintain distance and then clean between people,” she said.

Meyer said she hopes voters will be patient and understanding.

“I hope the voters who come remember that this is tough for everybody,” she cautioned. “And there will be long lines, and there will be delays.”

An election during a pandemic means a lot of logistical changes. Joyce McKinley, the director of Elections and Voter Registration for Centre County, said it’s been a challenge making sure safety guidelines are followed.

All poll workers are provided safety kits, which include things like “hand sanitizers, gloves, masks, the tape, face shields.” 

“We’re providing pens so that every voter can pick up a new pen to use it to sign the poll book, fill the ballot and then they can walk out with it,” McKinley said. 

Seventeen polling places in the county had to change locations either because the facilities are not available or because they were too close to high risk populations, for example, in nursing homes.

“They have been relocated and new places assigned and, last week, there were household postcards mailed to everybody in those precincts,” McKinley said.

But overall, McKinley said the county is in good shape. She said she doesn’t anticipate a huge turnout and more than 22,000 voters have already been sent mail-in ballots, which the county election office will count on election day, although it could take days to finish processing them. State officials say more than 1.8 million Pennsylvanians have applied to vote by mail.

“The voting process should be as smooth as before, maybe a little bit smoother,” McKinley said. She thinks voters will be able to see the efforts that have gone into maintaining safety at polling places. 

Peter Jurs is 77 and has been a poll worker for 10 years but opted out this time. He and his wife have both voted by mail and he said in-person voting seems like a bad idea at this time. 

And with the coronavirus potentially lingering, Jurs said he thinks people should take advantage of mail-in ballots in November as well.

“We already have a law that says, in Pennsylvania, you can vote by mail if you want to, but I think what we should do is go to the next step and do it entirely by mail, as they do in many other states,” he said.

Polls are open until 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated more than 22,000 voters in Centre County have voted by mail. That number actually described how many mail-in ballots had been sent to voters, not received back. We regret this error.