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Centre County Voters Head to the Polls for an Unusual Primary Election Day

by on June 02, 2020 6:15 PM

Rescheduled from April to June because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday's primary election was unlike any in Pennsylvania's history.

There were numerous public health safety measures in place at voting sites. Civil unrest continued to grip some of the most populated areas of the commonwealth. And for the first time, eligible voters had the option of no-excuse-required mail-in ballots.

Throughout Centre County, for a variety of possible reasons, in-person turnout appeared to be light. But election workers at First Presbyterian Church in Bellefonte, where voters in the No. 5 precinct could cast their ballots, said it was higher than expected there, with more than 170 voters by 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

Like poll workers throughout Centre County, they were decked out in masks and face shields. Signs upon entering urged voters to keep their distance from each other — and blue tape on the floor helpfully marked off where to stand. Hand sanitizer awaited at the door with a sign asking voters to use it when entering and exiting.

The county ordered 60,000 pens, so that none had to be reused. Voting equipment and other high-touch areas were sanitized throughout the day.

Joyce McKinley, Centre County director of elections and voter registration, said the county was to receive 65 protective kits from the Pennsylvania Department of State. Those didn't arrive until yesterday, but the county was already prepared with what was needed.

"Fortunately, way back we had prepared for that and had supplies on hand," she said. "So we were fortunate that we could provide all the supplies that were necessary. It’s one of those things, it’s a first time for everybody and everybody has to be patient. Some counties probably would have been in a real bind."

Among the protective items polling places had on hand were 400 face shields produced and donated by The Rivet in State College. Big Spring Spirits also donated large bottles of the hand sanitizer it has been producing at its Bellefonte distillery.

Election workers at First Presbyterian Church in Bellefonte, the voting location for precinct No. 5, donned face masks and shield, among other protective measures for the primary election on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com

Safety measures weren't the only challenge the county elections office had because of the pandemic. Fewer volunteers than usual were available, and some past voting locations could not be used. 

But, McKinley said, plenty of volunteers stepped up, while 17 polling places were moved to new locations, with three precincts consolidated. Voters in those precincts were notified last week.

"It was challenging, overall," McKinley said. "But my counterpart, [election coordinator Jodi Nedd] did a fantastic job on that as far as the relocation and even poll workers. The Board [of Commissioners] has been 100 percent behind us and they asked for volunteers or people to step forward and they were successful in that. With 100 percent support of the board and their assistance as well, it probably couldn’t have gone any better."

Elections offices across the state also face another new challenge. Because of bipartisan legislation signed into law last fall, any eligible Pennsylvania voter could request a mail-in ballot for the first time. While state officials expected voters would gradually adopt mail-in, ballot applications spiked as concerns grew about the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 1.8 million voters requested mail-in ballots across Pennsylvania. 

Centre County sent out 22,070 ballots and by Monday, 17,580 had been returned. Voters had until 8 p.m. on Tuesday to return mail-in ballots to the drop-box outside the Willowbank Building in Bellefonte, and McKinley estimated that by Tuesday afternoon more than 18,000 had been returned.

McKinley said that voters who were sent but did not return a mail-in ballot and instead went to the polls to vote were directed to fill out a provisional ballot, which is contingent on verification of eligibility.

The total number of mail-in ballots sent out in the county was just 1,800 fewer than all votes cast in last year's municipal primary and more than half the number of total ballots cast during the last presidential primary in 2016.

The elections office was able to begin opening and sorting them on Tuesday morning, but cannot tabulate them until after polls close at 8 p.m. In Centre County and across Pennsylvania, that means you shouldn't expect to see many, if any, final results for contested races on Tuesday night.

"There will be no results released until we’re completely done with that," McKinley said. "I would say the earliest would be Thursday."

For local voters, there isn't much suspense about who will win their parties' nominations in most races. While multiple candidates appear on the Republican and Democratic ballots for president, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are already the presumptive nominees.

The only truly contested elected office on Centre County primary ballots appears in the Democratic race for state auditor general. Scott Conklin — who also is on the ballot for reelection as state representative for the 77th District — Michael Lamb, Tracie Fountain, Rose Marie Davis, Nina Ahmad and Christina Hartman are each seeking the party's nomination. Timothy DeFoor is the only Republican candidate on the ballot for auditor general.

It's unclear when totals for statewide races will become available. While tabulating mail-in votes is in itself a hurdle, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the postmark deadline for mail-in ballots in Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties because of the combination of the pandemic and ongoing protests against racism and police brutality that have caused disturbances in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, Minnesota last week.

Those counties, which are under a disaster emergency declaration issued in response to the civil unrest, have until 5 p.m. June 9 to receive mail-in ballots.

A sign directs voters to keep a safe distance when entering the polling place for precinct No. 5 at First Presbyterian Church in Bellefonte. Distancing was among several other COVID-19 precautions in place during the primary election on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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