Voters in primaries around the country reported problems with mail-in ballots and confusion about where to turn out in person, as protests over the killing of George Floyd threatened to combine with the coronavirus pandemic to disrupt elections.
Primaries were held Tuesday in eight states and the District of Columbia, with nearly every jurisdiction facing a surge of interest in voting by mail and accompanying logistical problems. In several places, the number of in-person voting places was significantly reduced, and cities including the District experienced long lines that grew into the early evening.
The problems, though not critical, occurred on the heaviest day of voting since the novel coronavirus emerged in full force and suggested challenges ahead for the November presidential election.
“This surge is one thing, but I think we can expect a lot more than this in November, even without covid-19,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said about absentee voting. She described the day’s contests as running “remarkably smoothly, with no widespread issues to report.”
The story appeared different in the District, which opened just 20 of its typical 143 polling places and reported wait times at each location of more than an hour around 7:30 p.m. The lines stretched for blocks, even as the city’s curfew took effect.
Despite the problems, the voting landscape was a sharp departure from the partisan and court battles earlier this year in Ohio and Wisconsin over whether to postpone elections because of the threat of the coronavirus.
Yet as they cast ballots in person on Tuesday, voters encountered conditions that have become a hallmark of this unusual election year: fewer voting locations, newly installed ballot dropboxes, signs encouraging social distancing and poll workers in protective gear. The public was also cautioned not to expect complete results on Tuesday night, with some states saying they might not be released until next week.
In one Pennsylvania county, a judge on Tuesday ordered the mail-in deadline extended for as many as 500 people who had requested but not received mailed ballots. Election officials in Delaware County had struggled to fulfill an “unprecedented number” of absentee ballot requests, County Solicitor William Martin wrote in a last-minute court petition.
Voters in other jurisdictions faced similar hurdles. In the District of Columbia, Maryland and Rhode Island, some reported not receiving mail-in ballots or struggling to submit requests. District election officials resorted to hand-delivering ballots that were at risk of not arriving on time. Long lines formed in spots. At about 6 p.m., 300 or more people waited to vote in a line that stretched about six blocks around the Sherwood Recreation Center.
In one predominantly African American area of Pittsburgh, voters complained of feeling intimidated by having to cast ballots in a polling location that also houses a police department during a time of tension between black residents and law enforcement.
Lakiya Brown of northeast Philadelphia said she was not afraid of contracting the coronavirus or encountering danger from police or protesters when she cast her ballot Tuesday. But the 37-year-old said she planned to be at home before it got dark.
“People are angry. I get it. I am angry. I am hurting,” she said, wiping away tears. “I may not act the same way, but I get it.”
Some troubles appeared to stem from poor communication to voters about changed routines. In Philadelphia, for instance, where only 190 of 831 polling places were opened, some voters showed up at their normal location to find facilities shuttered with no signs directing them to a consolidated location.
Most of the problems emerged before Election Day and were related to the overwhelming increase in demand for mail-in ballots, which was up more than 1,000 percent in some jurisdictions, according to election officials.
Pennsylvania, notably the ring of suburbs around Philadelphia, is widely expected to be a crucial battleground in the November presidential election. If thousands of voters are unable to cast mail-in ballots in the primary, election officials will be under tremendous pressure to better prepare for a general election that four years ago was decided by the narrowest of margins.
Deadlines – and voters’ confusion about them – also caused issues.
In Indiana, the clerk of the state’s most populous county warned last week that thousands of ballots might not be counted because they would not be returned by the deadline of noon on Election Day.
And in New Mexico, voting rights advocates reported that several thousand applications for absentee ballots were received the day after the deadline.
Several of Tuesday’s contests drew special interest.
In Iowa, firebrand conservative Rep. Steve King, a Republican, faced four GOP rivals. In Maryland, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, was being challenged from the left by first-time candidate Mckayla Wilkes. And in New Mexico, former CIA operative Valerie Plame ran in a competitive primary for the seat being vacated by Senate hopeful Ben Ray Luján, a member of House Democratic leadership.
The presidential campaigns were taking note of turnout in Tuesday’s primaries. Election officials across the board expected low in-person turnout because of the surge in mail-in ballots, although that could mask the number of voters who were unable to or chose not to vote at all due to confusion over mail balloting rules or fear of infection at the polls.
There was uncertainty about where to drop mail-in ballots. Philadelphia election officials set up dropboxes at only 11 locations, not at every polling location. At the A.W. Christy Recreation Center in predominantly black West Philadelphia – where 15 separate polling locations were consolidated – voters arrived with mail-in ballots in hand, unsure of what to do with them. With no ballot dropbox available, officials directed voters to a public library a mile away.
Advocates said black voters have struggled to cast absentee ballots out of a combination of mistrust about dropping their ballots in the mail and a lack of access to information about how to do it.
“To have these folks have to specifically come to the polls is unconscionable to me,” said Sergio Cea, 35, a community organizer.
One voter, Dorsey Williams, 52, came to the Lucien Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library to drop off his mail-in ballot, only to be told – incorrectly – that he had to submit his ballot in the council district where he lives.
“Voter suppression is for real,” he said. “They just did it to me.”
In Delaware County outside Philadelphia, officials said they had fulfilled an unprecedented 80,000 requests for mail-in ballots. But 6,000 of them went out just Monday – giving those voters little wiggle room to return them on time. Officials said they would be unable to fulfill another 400 ballot requests at all because of insufficient staffing and time.
To help alleviate the crush, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, extended the mail-in ballot deadline by a week in six counties where the pandemic and protests have been most acute, but ballots still must be postmarked or received in person by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
“This is an unprecedented time for Pennsylvania and our nation as we face a major public health crisis and civil unrest during an election,” Wolf said in a statement. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and I want to ensure that voters can cast their ballot and that it is received in time.”
The Pennsylvania primary was the state’s first major contest since state lawmakers expanded absentee balloting to all voters last fall, long before they could have predicted how dramatically interest in voting by mail would surge as a result of the pandemic.
The onset of violent protests after Floyd, who was black, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis compounded the challenges that Tuesday brought.
Philadelphia has been under a mandatory 6 p.m. curfew since Sunday; the curfew in Washington is set at 7 p.m., while polls remained open. Both cities declared voters and poll workers exempt. The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, imposed a 9 p.m. curfew, one hour after polls were scheduled to close.
Wolf ordered his deadline extension for mail-in ballots to apply to Philadelphia and two of its suburbs, as well as the counties that include Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Erie.
Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Reed said Monday that the party was considering whether to bring legal action to block Wolf’s order. The GOP fought efforts to extend the ballot deadline in Wisconsin’s spring elections in April.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to vote, but we have an Election Day for a reason,” Reed said. “Postponing this deadline would require county election offices to verify ballots for weeks after the election, potentially delaying the outcome and opening the door for unnecessary litigation.”
In Philadelphia, the crunch for in-person voting access could be more acute in the city’s black enclaves, notably West and North Philadelphia, where requests for mail-in ballots were lower than in white areas, according to an analysis by Jonathan Tannen, a demographer who crunches city data.
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Pompilio reported from Philadelphia. The Washington Post’s Joe Heim, Joseph Marks, Jenna Portnoy and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.