Many York County voters submitting mail-in ballots in person

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

York County elections officials have known for months they'd have to process thousands of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 presidential election. But they likely didn't expect to have so many people lining up at their office to cast their votes in person.

Throughout the week, and for a variety of reasons, voters have been bringing their ballots to the York County Administrative Center, or requesting and filling them out at the elections office, instead of using the U.S. Postal Service.

York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler said she knows some voters have concerns about the reliability of the Postal Service and that some people want to feel the personal experience of physically dropping their ballot into the drop box.

But she wants voters to know they have other options.

"Every mail-in ballot and/or absentee ballot comes with a postage-paid return envelope," she said. "So, the ballots do not need to be dropped off in person."

As of Wednesday, the county had sent out nearly 88,000 mail-in ballots to voters, and nearly 23,000 completed ballots had already been returned.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and Gov. Tom Wolf have endorsed early in-person voting at elections offices as an option for voters.

A line forms in front the York County Administrative Center with voters waiting to drop off their election ballots at the center's ballot collection box Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

In this case, "early voting" means requesting a ballot at the elections office, then filling  it out on the spot and, sealed in the proper envelopes, immediately submitting it.

It takes time to process each  request, Wheeler said. The county is happy to serve residents in this way, Wheeler said, but she asked that voters have patience during the process.

One of the main reasons state officials encouraged so many people to vote by mail this year was to avoid having large crowds of people gathered, who could potentially spread the coronavirus.

With so many people voting in person at elections offices, it appears that benefit of the system could be lost.

But all voters who choose to submit their ballots in person in York County must wear masks to enter the building, and voters are asked to observe social distancing while waiting in line.

A spokesperson for Wolf said Wednesday that the administration trusts the U.S. Postal Service but also urges voters to return their ballots however they feel most comfortable, as long as they're returned in time to be counted.

"People lining up at county elections offices are people who would otherwise be lining up all at once on election day, and by allowing voters the chance to choose a day to vote, we’re accommodating the varying needs of voters with complex schedules and concerns with COVID-19," Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf, said in an email.

Satellite boxes: Voters who prefer to leave their ballot in a drop box instead of mailing it will only have one option, because the county is not setting up satellite offices or alternative drop-box locations.

The main reason for this is security, Wheeler said.

Drop boxes can't be left unattended, she said, and there could be capacity issues if the boxes become over-filled.

Outside the front doors of the county administrative center in York City Wednesday, Wheeler explained the process.

The drop box at the entrance to the building is emptied about three times a day, she said.

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A sheriff's deputy unlocks the box and a county employee takes the ballots to the secure room where ballots are being kept, she said. Each batch is timestamped when it's dropped off, and the outer envelopes are then scanned into the system.

The ballots remain sealed until 7 a.m. Election Day.

"At the end of the day, we need to create an environment where people feel safe," Wheeler said. "We feel we can provide the security so that there is no fraud going on."

Aside from security concerns about satellite drop boxes, the county is in the middle of a lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump's reelection campaign, which is challenging the use of satellite drop boxes across the state in the June 2 primary, Wheeler said.

Samantha Schlageter, 21, voted in her first presidential election Wednesday when she dropped off her absentee ballot at the York County Administrative Center. Schlageter requested an absentee ballot earlier this year because she's a student at Georgetown University.

Voting experience: Some voters waited up to an hour to get into the elections office Monday, which was also the last day to register to vote, and there were long lines outside to use the ballot drop box.

On Wednesday, about 20 people waited inside to get to the elections office, while voters outside trickled up to the drop box, usually only waiting a few minutes for their turn.

Stephanie Legore, of Penn Township, brought her ballot to the outdoor ballot drop box at the county administrative center Wednesday.

Legore said she chose to vote with a mail-in ballot over concerns about voter suppression in her district, which she referred to as "Trump country."

All in all, she said it was an easy process.

"The only thing I have an issue with is, if someone was handicapped, how would they get up those stairs?" Legore said, referring to the steps in front of the county administrative center.

In Pennsylvania, voters are prohibited from submitting another person's ballot, but there are exceptions for those with disabilities, who have the option of legally designating someone else to return their ballot.

Another voter, Samantha Schlageter, voted in her first presidential election Wednesday.

Schlageter, 21, said she requested an absentee ballot earlier this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, because she's a student at Georgetown University.

Now, because of COVID-19, she's attending classes remotely and decided since she was home in York County, she might as well bring her ballot in person. She also used the outside drop box.

"It was so exciting and felt really official," she said.

The last day for Pennsylvania voters to request a mail-in ballot is Tuesday, Oct. 27.

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