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County encourages state to delay primary, avoid mail-in-only election

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The Cumberland County commissioners issued a resolution Friday encouraging the state to postpone the 2020 primary, scheduled for April 28, instead of holding a mail-in-ballot-only election in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The idea of delaying the primary, or alternatively having voters cast ballots only by mail, has been volleyed about Harrisburg in the past several days.

On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Pennsylvania House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, was pushing legislation to delay the primary until June 2.

This would be Cumberland County’s preferred alternative, the county commissioners wrote, adding that the 2020 primary will be the rollout of the county’s new voting machines under Gov. Tom Wolf’s election security directive, which requires paper backup ballots.

If the primary is conducted entirely by mail, the November election will be the first time county voters are using the new machines, which is not optimal.

The county “is reluctant for new voting machines to first be deployed at the November election given anticipated increased voter turnout during a presidential election,” the commissioners wrote in their resolution.

The county’s vendors also cannot supply enough mail-in balloting materials for every voter.

Vendors have “already advised that they are incapable of providing the necessary supplies for Cumberland County to conduct the primary election through entirely absentee and mail-in ballots,” the commissioners wrote.

Another issue is that the number of mailed ballots is expected to increase significantly in 2020 due to recent legislation that relaxed the requirements for requesting an absentee ballot, putting a strain on county election offices even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cumberland County “anticipates experiencing staff shortages due to illness and difficulty in sourcing all necessary supplies to address the anticipated increase in mail-in and absentee ballots,” the commissioners wrote.

“The county has lost poll workers and polling places due to the impact of and uncertainty surrounding COVID-10,” commissioners wrote.

The AP reported over the weekend that the bill to push the primary back to June 2 would also likely include a provision to allow county election offices to open absentee ballots prior to the close of polls on election day, giving limited staff additional lead-time to count mailed-in ballots.

Rolling out new voting machines for a presidential election is also complicated by the fact that the machines selected by Cumberland County, the ExpressVote XL by Election Systems & Software, are the subject of lawsuits claiming that the Pennsylvania Department of State should not have certified the machines and told counties that they were OK to use in accordance with Wolf’s paper ballot directive.

Those suits, working their way through state and federal court, center on claims by former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein that the ExpressVote XL machines do not meet the terms of her settlement with the state over the tallying of the 2016 election results.

The Cumberland County Bureau of Elections began holding public demonstrations of the machines earlier this month, saying that the 400 devices delivered for the county’s 118 voting precincts have not presented any of the issues that caused mistabulations when Northampton County rolled out the ExpressVote XL for the 2019 municipal elections.

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