Priorities for Safe and Secure 2022 Elections
City Council Committee on Law and Government
February 15, 2022
The City of Philadelphia successfully responded to a massive challenge in executing the 2020 Primary and General Elections despite an extraordinary confluence of factors. In addition to preparing for record presidential election turnout and many tens of thousands of voters using the ES&S ExpressVote system for the first time, the election landscape shifted dramatically with the passage of Act 77 of 2019 and onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Act 77 constituted the largest set of changes to election law in 80 years, including vote by mail (VBM) available to any voter, a voter registration deadline just 15 days prior to the election instead of 30, and the elimination of straight-ticket voting. For voters, the expansion of mail-in voting was critical for those who may not easily — or could not all — venture to a polling place during set hours on Election Day. But for election officials, the new law has meant the administration of two elections simultaneously: one with mail-in ballots and another at in-person polling places on Election Day. A scramble to roll out new procedures followed the law’s passage, as well as a torrent of litigation. These difficult circumstances were compounded substantially by mis- and disinformation that caused confusion around the new voting procedures, spurred threats toward election officials, and left a substantial portion of Pennsylvanians distrustful of elections.
Some of these challenges will diminish in time. Philadelphia voters have become more accustomed to using the new voting system and to vote-by-mail. Pandemic-related health concerns will also eventually subside. But other issues will resurface each election, becoming most acute when turnout and the political stakes are highest. The Office of the City Commissioners will continue to be in the position of running dual vote-by-mail and in-person operations with more sophisticated technology and processes to oversee, enduring greater spikes in seasonal staffing needs, and fending off allegations by bad-faith actors intent on harming the public’s trust in election outcomes.
Unprecedented collaboration among various stakeholders and an extraordinary increase in resources were necessary to make the 2020 elections successful. The City Commissioners and their staff will need the support of city and state officials, civic and community leaders, and businesses throughout Philadelphia again this year to ensure safe, secure, and accessible elections. The entire operation will continue to involve a litany of essential tasks, both internal and public-facing. To highlight several, meeting the following priorities will help ensure success again in 2022:
Deploy secure ballot drop boxes in communities across the city. Drop boxes used to date have followed the detailed guidance published by the Department of State regarding security, surveillance, and ballot collection, making them the safest and most secure option for voters to return their mail-in ballots. These receptacles are a critical feature of any election system with widespread mail-in voting, but their importance in Pennsylvania is even greater due to the tight deadlines to request a mail-in ballot (Tuesday before the election at 5 pm) and return a mail-in ballot (Election Day at 8 pm). Thousands of voters who submit mail-in ballot requests close to the deadline have only seven days to have their applications processed, receive mail-in ballots through the US Postal Service, and return those ballots by 8 pm on Election Day. Without reforming state law to relax these deadlines, the best means to provide late-applying voters an opportunity to timely return their mail-in ballots will be through a nearby drop box in their community.
Reallocate city staff or provide funding for mail-in ballot processing. The 2020 elections saw a crush of mail-in ballot applications submitted and ballots returned for counting. Fortunately, emergency funding from the nonpartisan Center for Tech and Civic Life made it possible to procure equipment to process hundreds of thousands of ballots in a matter of days, but election operations still require scores of additional workers in the leadup to the voter registration deadline (15 days prior), mail-in ballot request deadline (7 days prior), and for processing returned ballots, which can only begin at 7 am on Election Day. Insufficient staff capacity to handle the deluge of mail-in requests close to the application deadline can risk delays in voters receiving their ballots and potentially their disenfranchisement. As the 2020 General Election also made clear, returned ballots must be counted as efficiently and quickly as possible to close the window in which candidates or other partisan actors may make irresponsible claims about election results.
Guarantee the smooth implementation of Chinese language service while expanding materials in additional languages. Following the 2020 Census and under Voting Rights Act requirements, all ballots and voting materials must be translated into Chinese, a major step for Philadelphia that city and state officials are working to complete for the upcoming primary election. The materials to be translated span from nomination petitions to polling place signage to the audio ballots uploaded into voting machines. Among the most important tasks for the Department of State will be to translate the widely-used online applications for voter registration and mail-in ballots while adding a new option for voters to list their language preference. While Chinese language services are being implemented, it would be beneficial to add translated materials for other commonly-spoken languages in the city as well. The ability for these voters to request election materials directly to their homes where they can review at their own pace or with assistance is an important opportunity for language access.
Provide funding for poll worker raises and training stipends. While poll workers have an indispensable role in the conduct of elections, filling the nearly 8,500 positions needed to fully staff Philadelphia’s roughly 1,700 voting divisions has never been more difficult. Emergency funding made significant raises possible for the 2020 election, and the City Commissioners have increased the stipend for attending training in recent years. But several factors have decreased the number of available workers, many of whom are seniors. Increasing the compensation for these positions with an incentive on completing an enhanced training program would improve not only our ability to staff polling places but ensure these workers are thoroughly prepared to oversee the election in their division.
Expand the management and operational capacity of the City Commissioners Office. As with every county election office in Pennsylvania, city elections personnel have been put under tremendous strain following Act 77. Roughly a third of the state’s 67 counties have lost election directors over the past two years. Philadelphia’s City Commissioners Office is unique in its structure from the other counties, but the points of stress are similar: voter registration and vote-by-mail processing, polling place staffing, satellite election offices and drop boxes, and IT and security. Building the core of department leadership with extensive management experience and an ability to supervise large numbers of staff, including temporary workers, will be essential to ensure key operations are running efficiently and effectively.
These priorities do not cover every critical issue that must be addressed to successfully run elections in Philadelphia during this trying time, nor are any of them solely within the power of the City Commissioners Office to address. Absent emergency state, federal, or philanthropic funding for elections, the Kenney administration and City Council will determine what additional resources can be made available. More money will be needed.
As the 2020 General Election and its aftermath made clear, ensuring safe, secure, and accessible elections wherein every registered voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot is not enough to protect the electoral process and its integrity. Unfounded charges and falsehoods about the basic mechanics of our elections have sunk deep into large swaths of the electorate in Pennsylvania and across the country.
According to a Muhlenberg College poll released in January 2022, nearly four in 10 Pennsylvanians are not confident that the 2020 election was conducted fairly; a quarter were not at all confident. National polls find similar degrees of distrust, which fall along partisan lines but are not limited to the Republican base and can include many independent voters. More recently, concerns among Democrats around changes in voting procedures in many states is extending a lack of confidence across the political spectrum. When a majority of the public cannot trust elections and election outcomes, our democracy will break down.
As the largest city in a swing state that will again be subject to intense national scrutiny during the upcoming midterms, Philadelphia must be prepared to respond as it did during the 2020 election. It will be imperative for city leaders and advocates to speak clearly and collectively about the facts related to our election processes and the certified results, whatever they are.
The Committee of Seventy is committed to supporting city officials, community and civic groups, and businesses in responding to this challenge, which will assuredly persist through 2024 and potentially many years longer. We look forward to discussing further the tools and resources that we can provide as part of this effort.