Election 2022

Philly election officials report smooth ballot counting process, despite last-minute change

“I don’t expect the process to take any longer than it’s taken in the past,” said one city commissioner.

The ballot counting takes place inside a massive wearhouse in Northeast Philadelphia

The ballot counting takes place inside a massive wearhouse in Northeast Philadelphia

Emily Cohen For WHYY
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As the polls closed, Philly’s ballot processing center on Roosevelt Boulevard hummed with activity, filled with the steady conversation of election workers tasked with tallying votes.

An abrupt shift in Philadelphia’s counting process was finalized Tuesday morning just before polls opened. Spurred by a last-minute court decision, the change — intended to doubly ensure accuracy — may have been nerve-wracking for some observers, but no such pressure was evident in the Northeast Philly facility.

Workers carefully and dutifully handled ballots, making their way first through those from mail voters, for which processing was allowed to begin at 7 a.m. on Election Day.

The change, a reinstatement of a poll book verification process more stringent than any other Pa. county, appears as if it won’t slow down the city’s typical vote-counting pace.

“I don’t expect the process to take any longer than it’s taken in the past, [about] two or three days,” said City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, speaking at a 10:30 p.m. press conference in the center. She expects full results to be available by Thursday.

About 50% of in-person votes were counted by 10:30, Deeley added, with the rest trickling in as work continued through the night.

Voter turnout in Philly was projected to be relatively high, per Deeley. Without giving specifics, she said she expected turnout numbers to look “nice” once fully counted. There were no security concerns that the city commissioners were aware of.

Pat Christmas, policy director for good government nonprofit Committee of Seventy, was monitoring the elections and helping local Election Protection Coalition volunteers sort out any last minute questions at the polls.

“On the whole, I think at polling places, it was a relatively typical election day,” Christmas told Billy Penn. That includes the typical confusions, which, since 2020, often revolve around the proper procedure for mail ballots.

“[For] some number of calls, either poll workers or voters or both were concerned about or confused about the mail-in voting procedures,” Christmas said. “For example, surrendering your ballot or what to do for someone who may have forgotten the signature or date, which of course, has become a big issue over the past couple of weeks.”

Around 3,400 Philadelphians turned in mail ballots with errors, per Christmas. Most people offered a chance to correct the record by “curing” their ballot came out on Monday, and the Election Day line outside of City Hall to receive a replacement was “not nearly as long as it was” the day before, he said.

In-person voting appeared to have gone smoothly by Philly standards. There appeared to be a few polling places that opened slightly late or dealt with poll worker vacancies filled by last minute volunteers. That’s par for the course when looking at recent decades of elections.

So what about the one change that appeared to be out of the norm?

Philly poll book reconciliation 101

Poll books, the list of eligible voters in a precinct that you have to sign when you show up to cast your vote, have a notation next to each name that indicates whether a voter has requested or submitted a mail ballot. If they have, poll workers are supposed to prevent that voter from casting another ballot in person.

Since poll books are printed before Election Day, Philly uses stamps to indicate voters whose mail ballots are received after printing, with a cutoff in the closing days of mail voting — this year, the stamps were supposed to indicate status through Nov. 2.

Those voters can still vote in person IF they surrender their mail ballot. If a voter doesn’t have the mail ballot to hand over, or there’s another question, they can vote via provisional ballot (which are counted last).

Poll book reconciliation is the final contingency measure to prevent double voting. It’s basically what it sounds like — and every county in Pennsylvania does it.

Poll books are scanned into a voter registry called the SURE system to verify everyone who voted in person. Once the poll book lists a voter as having cast their ballot in person, if a mail ballot exists for that person, it is voided — i.e. reconciling the error of double voting through referencing the poll books.

Here’s the thing: Most Pennsylvania counties do reconciliation in the weeks after the election is over, as they are certifying their results.

But in Philly, the practice had been to do it during the initial count — which means the tallying for each precinct stops as the reconciliation process takes place. During the 2020 primary, that dragged the vote count out to five days.

An election worker watches to make sure mail ballots are scanned through properly at the Philadelphia County Ballot Processing Center

An election worker watches to make sure mail ballots are scanned through properly at the Philadelphia County Ballot Processing Center

Emily Cohen For WHYY

Why the City Commissioners reinstated the process

This year, the Republican-led legislature passed a new law that required local election officials to count “continuously” through the night, or forfeit millions in state funding. So the commissioners decided they’d forgo their usual in-count poll book reconciliation.

Then a different group of Republicans sued, seeking to reinstate the process.

Although the judge in the case — Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Marie Coyle — did not require the commissioners to reimplement the reconciliation process, she did write on Monday a biting opinion making it clear that she believed the city had chosen to eschew a key fraud-catching measure.

Seth Bluestein, the sole Republican City Commissioner, said the tenor of the opinion was what caused them to reverse course.

“While we technically won the court case in Common Pleas Court,” he told The Inquirer, “the opinion that was written was written in a way that we have no other choice but to go forward and reinstate reconciliation.”

Commissioner Deeley, however, was confident it wouldn’t make a considerable difference, and certainly nothing at the scale of the 2020 primary. Judges of elections — elections workers in charge of a specific voting precinct — had been turning over boxes of poll books at a steady clip.

“Boxes right now and in the past couple hours have been hand delivered by the judges of elections to our offices at Delaware and Spring Garden, and our people are working there through the night to go through those boxes,” Deeley affirmed on election night.

Seeking to assure voters, she made it clear that they believe they’re improving election administration since new challenges arose because of COVID.

“I think since 2020, we’re getting better and better at this.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2022 stories.

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