NORRISTOWN — With the so-called “pandemic primary” behind them, Montgomery County officials are preparing for November’s presidential election by addressing the expected large turnout, a likely surge in mail-in ballots and equipment upgrades to help the counting process.
“We’re recommending significant equipment upgrades to accommodate the expected volume in both absentee ballots and mail-in ballots,” county Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak addressed the county commissioners during a meeting on Thursday.
During the primary, it took election officials a week to sort, scan and count by hand all 126,000 absentee and mail-in ballots that were received. Officials said the number of absentee and mail-in ballots could double in November given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and increased voter interest in the high-profile presidential contest.
“Even if we double the size of the operation and the capacity there, that means we still then take a week to count all those votes, which is not a standard that anyone is comfortable with. People should expect their vote and the outcome of the election to be known long before that,” Soltysiak said.
“So, that is the goal, we’re working to scale up considerably both staff-wise and equipment-wise to allow the results of the election to be known in a much more reasonable amount of time,” Soltysiak said.
Commissioners Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh and Vice Chairman Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. voted in favor of three contracts, totaling $1.7 million, to purchase high-speed sorting, scanning, ballot opening and ballot extracting machines to assist with processing mail-in ballots.
Arkoosh pointed out that before the pandemic even surfaced, state officials for the first time, last year, said voters could obtain mail-in ballots without providing an excuse that was long-required for such ballots.
Arkoosh said the equipment will enable officials to accurately and timely count the ballots of those who choose to vote-by-mail.
“I believe it’s our most fundamental obligation that we make that available to our voters in that the General Assembly has made that the law of the land,” Arkoosh said.
Lawrence agreed with Arkoosh.
“Our role as county commissioners, as the Board of Elections, is to administer the election and make sure that no matter how a person chooses to vote that their vote is counted safely, quickly and efficiently,” Lawrence said.
Commissioner Joseph C. Gale, the lone Republican on the three-member board, voted against the contracts, saying mail-in voting is “extremely problematic” given factors such as the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle a high volume of mail. He suggested the high-priced equipment opens the possibility of human error by failing to properly use the machines or misplacing mail-in ballots.
“The 2020 primary was considered a ‘pandemic primary.’ It’s my hope that the November 2020 general election is not classified as a ‘pandemic election.’ It’s my hope that by November 2020 we’re past the COVID-19 emergency status,” Gale said. “And I believe that in-person voting is the best way for the citizens to vote and to have their vote counted in a safe manner.”
“The most secure way is in-person voting and that’s something I urge the citizens to do, to exercise their civic duty in person. If they are fearful of the virus that exists, they can vote in-person with a mask, they can vote in-person with gloves, whatever personal protective equipment they feel comfortable with,” Gale added.
Soltysiak said the $1.7 million is “likely higher than what we anticipate spending, ultimately, but we are recommending approving the higher amounts to give staff the flexibility to move quickly on finalizing the details for this equipment in the coming days.”
“We will work with purchasing and the vendors to get the most competitive pricing available,” explained Soltysiak, adding there is high demand for such equipment nationwide and time is of the essence.
While county election officials have a long to-do list internally, Soltysiak said officials also need the help of the state legislature and the public.
County officials are currently seeking feedback from voters and poll workers who participated in the primary election. The deadline to respond to the survey is July 14 and it can be found at www.montcopa.org/voterservices
“The public input is very important as is that of our poll workers. It’s been very useful in the past as we rolled out our new equipment a few elections ago and we absolutely utilized it to make changes that were well-received,” Soltysiak said. “So I would encourage people to go online to complete that survey.”
Soltysiak said officials are also looking to the state legislature to address the processing of ballots. Currently, the processing of ballots, by law, is not able to begin until Election Day.
“We have, as many other counties have asked, that the state consider allowing counties to begin processing, not counting, but processing those ballots prior to election day, like many states who have a significant mail-in operation and have for years,” Soltysiak explained.
“That would obviously allow us to have the results of the election much closer to election night than we would otherwise. There are bills pending in Harrisburg to do that,” Soltysiak added. “We encourage our residents to reach out to your state representatives and state senators to encourage them to help make the changes that we need to make the election as smooth as possible.”
To support in-person voting the county will need polling places and poll workers.
During the June primary election, officials temporarily reduced the number of polling places from 352 to 140, a reduction of 60 percent, after many traditional poll workers chose not to work that election cycle given the pandemic. Additionally, many traditional polling places in long-term care facilities or senior centers were not available as polling places due to the pandemic.
Officials have said they hope to return to a full complement of polling places in November.
“If you were a polling place in the past, prior to the primary, we need you. We need for you to work with us to help us help you make your place a safe and effective polling place, both for the users of your building and also for the general public and we are happy to do that,” Soltysiak said.
“If people in the community are aware of other places that can be polling places that we have not considered in the past, please do call Voter Services with those suggestions,” Soltysiak said. “And once we have all the polling places identified, we do need poll workers to staff them. We can’t have one without the other.”
Those interested in being poll workers can call Voter Services at 610-278-3275.
“I hope everybody heeds the calls for the help that we are definitely going to need as we head into November,” Arkoosh said.
Soltysiak added, “With the changes in the law and also with the voting patterns obviously shifting and also issues related to the pandemic, we’re going to organize the office so that we can scale up the size of Voter Services so we can accomplish the considerable tasks that lie ahead.”
The majority of county residents, about 126,000, voted by mail during the primary election while about 88,000 voted in-person.
“In order to accommodate that reality moving forward, the Office of Voter Services will be organized by an in-person division and also a mail-in division and both will be scaled up to meet the demand for November,” Soltysiak explained.