Election 2020

Philly slashes polling places, 4 in 5 will not open for the June primary

Mail-in voting is the best way to go, election officials say.

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Dan Levy / Billy Penn

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Philadelphia will have nearly 80% fewer polling places in the upcoming election due to the strains placed on the city’s election machine by the coronavirus.

The City Commissioners plan to approve a list of 188 polling locations for the upcoming June 2 primary, down from more than 830 in last November’s election.

Election officials said the changes were necessary to deal with a few pandemic-induced issues. There’s a massive shortage of poll workers, who tend to skew older. And congregate care settings like nursing homes, once common voting spots in Philly, had to be stricken from the rolls.

In assigning the new locations, city officials said they tried to concentrate them in neighborhoods where fewer mail-in ballot applications have been submitted.

They also restricted options to more spacious locations that can allow for social distancing among voters and poll workers. It’s uncharted territory, but they’re hoping for success.

“There’s no playbook for this thing right now,” said Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio.

After postponing the primary from April to June, state lawmakers signed an emergency law that allows counties to reduce their polling places by up to 60%. Philadelphia and three other counties sought approval last week to make further cuts. Once city officials approve the list on Wednesday, it heads to the Pennsylvania Department of State for final seal.

Philadelphia is divided into 1,692 voting divisions, often called precincts. Under normal circumstances, there’s roughly one polling place for every two divisions. The pandemic polling place list breaks the city into zones where an average of 10 precincts will share a polling place — and for some voters, it’ll be a hike to get there.

Conventional wisdom holds that more voters turn out if their polling place is close to home. Now, some residents will have to trek up to 20 blocks to cast their ballots in person.

At the same time, the slashed list means voters may be forced into closer quarters at the shared locations, raising the risk of viral spread. Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said the health department is working with election officials to get the locations up to federal pandemic standards.

Anticipating a steep drop-off at the polls, officials have been promoting mail-in ballots as the safest way to vote during the pandemic. It’s the first election in Pennsylvania where you don’t need an excuse to vote from your couch.

Some areas of the city have tapped the remote voting option more than others, so the new polling place map reflects that.

“We went in and looked at the data from the mail-in ballot applications and made sure the areas of the city that are lagging behind in applications were receiving additional polling sites,” Custodio said.

More than 100,000 Philadelphians have already applied to vote by mail this year. If you haven’t done so, it’s not too late: the deadline to apply for a ballot is May 26.

Need a primer for filling out your ballot? Bookmark our election guide at billypenn.com/electionguide.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

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