Elections: Voters, Officials Consider Ways to Vote During COVID-19

Shanelle Robinson and Angelina Yenchob have little in common.

Robinson, 21 is a West Philadelphia native and has only lived outside of the city once before quickly returning home. Yenchob, 76, grew up in Puerto Rico before settling down in the Northeast. 

But they both voted by mail for the Democratic primary this past June due to COVID-19. 

Unlike Yenchob, this was Robinson’s first time voting in a primary.

“I was excited,” she said. “I had voted before, but this one felt different.”

Robinson had initially planned on voting in person at her local polling place. But, like many people concerned about the safety of voting in person and unsure of where to vote, she opted for a mail-in ballot. 

Yenchob, on the other hand, is no stranger to voting by mail or the primary process; she has been a poll worker for six years now. 

“When they told me I wouldn’t be able to work at my usual polling place, I was nervous,” she said. “So I opted out of working the primary. I didn’t want to put my health at risk because of my age.”  

Yenchob feels confident in the safety measures planned for the general election, but said she still had questions. 

“What if my ballot doesn’t get where it needs to be in time?” Yenchob said. “I’m not sure when I’m going to receive my ballot.” 

Lingering ambiguities around safety have left Robinson unsure of how she will vote or what her options are.

“I’m just not sure if it is more beneficial to vote in person or by mail-in ballot,” Robinson said. “I didn’t feel safe going to the polls during the primary, and I know that it was a few months ago, but I’m still not sure.”

Democratic first ward leader Adams Rackes explained why finding a way to vote for the presidential election is so important. 

“The presidential election last time was decided by about 44,000 votes in Pennsylvania, which is only a few dozen votes per voting division in Philadelphia,” he said. “So the election could really be decided by a handful of voters in each little neighborhood in Philadelphia, and that has a tremendous impact on our city.”

Yenchob and Robinson are not alone in their confusion and anxiety. As the 2020 presidential election quickly approaches, questions of safety seem to be on voters’ minds everywhere, but people are also concerned about their access to the polls. 

Will COVID restrictions impact voting accessibility? Is it safe to vote in person? The simple answer to both of these questions is yes, according to staff in the Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners

With the addition of mail-in voting and 17 satellite election offices where voters can request a ballot and return it up to a week prior to Election Day, several individuals from the commissioners’ office and Committee of Seventy feel the 2020 Presidential election has become one of the most accessible in recent Philadelphia history.

Donna Fitzpatrick, special assistant to City Commissioner Lisa M. Deeley, explained what precautions are being taken to protect voters from COVID-19 on Election Day. Poll workers will have hand-sanitizer and masks to distribute, but they can’t require anyone to wear a mask before casting a vote, she said. 

“We cannot force a voter to wear a mask when they are voting because it is their constitutional right to vote,” she said.

Polling places will also have markers on the floor to indicate that social distancing is necessary. 

“We are also going to be giving every voter a glove to use to vote on the machine to kind of mitigate the spread or the possible spread of any germs or the virus,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Yenchob expressed concern over the number of polling places that will be open. Even with additional polling places opening, she still worries about safety and social distancing for in-person voting.  

“I know the location I work is open, but I’m unsure about the others,” she said. “And I know people want to vote in person.”

Luarren Cristella, chief advancement officer at the Committee of Seventy, said that around 70% of polling places were closed and consolidated during the primary, though that won’t be the case on Nov. 3. 

“The plan right now is to open up all of the polling places right that we had in 2019,” she said. “So there’s not going to be a consolidation of divisions or anything close to what we saw in the spring.”

Some polling locations may be different, to allow for social distancing, though most voters will be able to vote in the places they are used to, Fitzpatrick said. Polling places have not been consolidated, and there are roughly the same number of polling places across the city as in years past, she said.

Updated polling locations are listed in the Philadelphia VoterApp. Voters searching for information about a specific location can contact the Voter Registration Office at 215-686-1590.

Requests for mail-in and absentee ballots can be completed online or on paper. Applicants need to provide their Pennsylvania driver’s license number or PennDOT ID number. (Madelyne Key/PN)

For those worried about their COVID-19 risk at in-person voting locations, voting by mail offers a safer alternative. But recent cuts and well documented slowdowns at the U.S. Postal Service have some concerned if their mail-in ballot will arrive in time to be counted. 

“The post office advised that anyone mailing the voted ballot back through the mail does it at least eight days before Election Day,” Fitzpatrick said. 

She went on to explain that all mail-in ballots have a barcode that allows you to track where it is and when it is received. This can be done at the Votes PA ballot tracking page.  

“After you fill it out and send it back,” Cristella said. “You can track whether or not it’s been received by your county board of elections.” 

If a ballot does not arrive at the board of elections within two weeks, according to the tracking, a voter should contact their local elections office to request a new ballot, she said. 

“They will void that one and send you a new one,” she said. “Or you can go to a satellite election office immediately, request it, fill it out on the spot, and hand it right back in.” 

(Madelyne Key/PN)

Requesting a mail-in ballot is a fairly simple process that can be done online or by mail. All that is needed to complete the ballot request application online is a valid PA driver’s license or PennDOT ID number. 

To request an application by mail, voters will need a PA driver’s license or PennDOT ID along with the last four digits of their social security number.   

If a requested mail-in ballot does not arrive, or if a voter is worried their ballot might be late, they can receive assistance at any of the recently opened satellite election offices. 

Voters who have received a mail-in ballot, but then decide to vote in person, should not simply tear up the ballot and go vote. They must inform their elections office that they intend to vote in person instead so that the mail-in ballot can be invalidated. Otherwise, the in-person vote will not count. 

Philadelphia’s satellite elections offices are open 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. 

“These locations are offices where a voter could go if they have to,” Fitzpatrick said. “They could register to vote or update their registration. They could then apply for a mail-in ballot, get their ballot printed right there by our staff, vote on their ballot and then return it to our staff, and they’re good.” 

Philadelphia voters will vote on four ballot questions alongside candidates for political office. (Screengrab from PhiladelphiaVotes.com)

Making a plan to vote, whether on or before Election Day, is as important as familiarizing oneself with the candidates on the ballot, Rackes said.  

“Vote by mail, as long as you do it now and return the ballot as soon as you get it and then double-check it online,” he said. “Go to an early voting center and do it there all in one step, or vote safely on Election Day wearing a mask and maintaining distance and giving yourself a little bit of time.” 

– Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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