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Demand for mail-in ballots makes for unpredictable primary

MARK SCOLFORO
The Associated Press
Chet Harhut, deputy manager, of the Allegheny County Division of Elections, wheels a dolly loaded with mail-in ballots, at the division of elections offices in downtown Pittsburgh Wednesday, May 27, 2020. The once-delayed Jun 2 Pennsylvania primary will feature legislative and congressional races, a first run for some new paper-record voting systems and the inaugural use of newly legalized mail-in ballots. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

HARRISBURG — A primary election like none other in state history awaits Pennsylvania voters Tuesday, when those who have not contributed to the flood of mail-in ballots may encounter new machines designed to improve security by creating a paper record.

Polling places in some counties have been moved or consolidated to cope with a pandemic-driven drop in election volunteers, and special social distancing rules will be in place.

The result of the highest profile contests on the ballot are a foregone conclusion, as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are the presumptive major-party nominees.

The only statewide races are for the “row offices” — attorney general, auditor general and treasurer.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro is unopposed in seeking his party’s nomination, as is Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh for the GOP nod. There is a six-candidate Democratic primary and a lone Republican seeking the nominations for attorney general, as incumbent Eugene DePasquale is term-limited. Unopposed in the treasurer primary are incumbent Democrat Joe Torsella and Republican Stacy Garrity.

All 18 of the state’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives are seeking reelection, although only two have primary opposition from within their own party — suburban Philadelphia Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and Pittsburgh Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat.

FILE - In this March 10, 2020, file photo wearing gloves, a King County Election worker collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary, in Seattle. But the 2020 presidential election is creeping ever closer, and there are no signs yet of pandemic abating, nor any word on when Americans on orders to stay home can resume normal life, and so lawmakers are trying to figure how to allow for voting in a world where face-to-face contact causes anxiety at the least, and sickness and death at the most. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

More:Americans increasingly support mail-in voting, poll shows

More:Officials fear mail-in ballots will delay election results

In the Legislature, all 203 House seats and half the 50-member Senate are up this year. The most notable vacancies were created by the retirements of House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

There are 17 retirements in the state House, which currently has a 110-93 Republican majority, and two in the Senate, where the GOP, with one independent, holds a 29-21 margin.

Primary voters will also pick delegates and alternates for the two major parties’ presidential nominating conventions.

The election was postponed from April because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the meantime Pennsylvania voters have requested more than 1.8 mail-in ballots and returned about 1 million.

Before a new state law passed last year, those who did not wish to cast their ballots in person had to provide one of a limited number of permitted excuses to qualify for absentee ballots.

The unexpected volume of no-excuses mail-in ballot requests has proven to be a challenge for county elections officials, and they are warning that election night results are likely to be delayed. Where those delays will occur and how long it will take to get results are open questions.

At the same time, about a third of counties will be using new voting systems for the first time. The conversion to new machines caused some problems in November, including malfunctions in Northampton County that one official likened to a three-alarm fire.