YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s a counterintuitive fact about elections: The busiest ones aren’t the most complex ones.
Usually, fewer people vote in primary elections than in general elections. But primary elections can be more complex than general elections because primaries have twice as many ballot styles (separate ones for Republicans and Democrats) as general elections when all voters in a precinct use the same ballots.
Add that complexity to a primary when lots of people actually do vote, and you get May 2021’s mess, featuring a man unable to vote for his own wife who was running for re-election.
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York County had printed ballots based on a state formula, which takes into account turnout in recent elections, which, in turn, wasn’t enough to account for a surge in Republican turnout.
“Instead of looking at the number of voters that turned out, total, for the election, we are using the number of registered voters,” said Julie Wheeler (R), York County’s president commissioner. The county prints enough ballots for 60% of registered voters to vote at election day polling places, she said.
That makes it almost impossible to run out. Last year’s unusually-high-for-a-primary turnout was less than 25%, and that includes people who voted by mail and thus didn’t need election day ballots at their polling place.
Still, the county has back-ups: Election judges must call the county office if and when they run through even half of their ballots — and again if they manage to run through 75%.
And if they somehow do run that low and need extras, “instead of having to have the ballots just printed here” — in at the election office in York City — “we have eight locations across the 911 square miles of York County that can do the printing,” Wheeler said, placing the back-up ballots closer to the precincts that need them.
On a smaller scale, Lebanon County — experiencing a similar surge in May 2021 Republican turnout — had a similar issue: One precinct ran out of Republican ballots. There, no one reported being unable to vote, said Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz (D) — backup ballots arrived quickly, and voters were able to vote on the precinct’s touchscreen machine in the meantime.
Still, “I don’t want it to happen again,” Litz said.
And she said it shouldn’t, thanks to more ballots and other improvements there, too.
“I am so proud of our staff,” Litz said. “I’ve got to tell you, they work together as a team, and they have just dug in.”
That includes one key new staff member: Sean Drasher, the county elections director. This is his first election.
But “we’re not remaking the wheel here,” Drasher said. “When [former director] Michael [Anderson] left, he left things in a great place. We have some staff that stayed on and have a lot of experience, and they’ve made my job a lot easier…. And the poll workers, we have got a lot of poll workers that have been doing this a really long time. They really know what they’re doing.”
Lancaster County had plenty of ballots in May 2021. Too many to count, in fact, because the company that printed its mail-in ballots made a mistake that caused automated tabulation machines to be unable to count the ballots. Workers had to manually copy the ballots, one by one, so they could be scanned.
Like the issues in York and Lebanon counties, this one was solved before November’s general election.
“We chose another vendor, and so far so good,” said Ray D’Agostino (R), the county’s president commissioner, who (like Wheeler) is also chair of his county’s election board. “We have not had any issues like that back last year during the general election and not during this primary.”
A final note: Wheeler noted that although Pennsylvania law is clear that voters can only turn in their own mail-in ballots, that doesn’t mean they should give up if they have trouble getting to a polling place or turning in their mail-in ballots personally.
“We do know that some people get sick sometimes and have to be hospitalized,” Wheeler said. “So there certainly are emergency provisions in place, should somebody find themselves in a situation where they get called out of town last minute or they find themselves being sick.”