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York County officials reflect on success of Nov. 3 election

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

By nearly all accounts, the Nov. 3 general election in York County ran smoothly and transparently despite a slew of new laws, last-minute state directives and an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots.

York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler said the county's success was the result of the poll workers, elections department staff and county employees from other departments who came together to get the job done.

"This was a countywide effort and a lot of county employees stepped up to help," she said.

One of the major accomplishments from Nov. 3 was that York County tabulated all of its 75,210 mail-in ballots by the early morning hours of Nov. 4, whereas some counties waited until the day after the election to start the process.

And the county tripled the number of Election Day workers it used during the June 2 primary to meet the demand for processing the mail ballots.

This was the first presidential election that York County's director of elections and voter registration, Steve Ulrich, had presided over.

Ulrich started his job as elections director in January under intense scrutiny because his professional background was primarily in sports administration rather than election administration.

His hiring came on the heels of a tumultuous municipal election in 2019, when the county rolled out its new voting machines.

York County's late results in the Nov. 5, 2019, election became statewide news, and then-election chief Nikki Suchanic resigned days later. 

More:EDITORIAL: Kudos to election workers

York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler
Wednesday, September 16, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

But most voters seemed happy with how things went in the June 2 primary, and the county commissioners said they debriefed after the primary to see what else they could improve ahead of the general election.

Those improvements included buying more high-speed ballot scanners and ballot openers, hiring more people to precanvass mail-in ballots and changing some polling places that had been problematic for several years.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman tweeted his appreciation for York County's election administration Tuesday.

"York, a Republican led county, did an outstanding, transparent job during this election," Fetterman said.

Ulrich was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

One of the greatest challenges during the general election was the surge in mail-in ballot use.

County officials said they have recommendations for state lawmakers to improve the process for next time.

"We need reform around the deadline to request a mail-in ballot," Wheeler said. "That was a huge challenge not just for York County but for every county."

The deadline to request a mail-in ballot for the general election was Oct. 27, just seven days before Election Day.

There just wasn't enough time to process last-minute ballot applications, verify voters' identities and deliver the materials to the voters in time for them to complete and return the ballot, county officials said.

Voters who requested a mail-in ballot but didn't receive it in time had to go to their polling place and cast a provisional ballot.

Of the 93,000 mail-in ballots sent out to voters, about 75,000 were returned, meaning the remaining voters either spoiled their mail-in ballot at their polling place to cast a standard ballot, voted provisionally at their polling place or didn't vote at all.

Commissioner Ron Smith said if the deadline had been moved back to three weeks before the election, instead of one week, it would have given them enough "breathing room" to complete the ballot requests in a timely fashion and get the ballots out to voters.

More:Big turnout: About 75% of York County voters participated in election

Steve Ulrich, director of Elections, right, waits as County Commissioner Ron Smith signs the Certification of Computation of Election Results after the York County Board of Elections voted to certify the computation of ballots, Wednesday, November 18, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Commissioner Doug Hoke said in the future, counties should be allowed to precanvass mail-in ballots before Election Day. Under the current statute, county officials had to wait until 7 a.m. Election Day to start opening envelopes and preparing the ballots for efficient tabulation later.

Hoke said those time constraints needed to be addressed in the General Assembly, but that under the circumstances, York County did its job well.

Of course, not everything was perfect on Election Day.

All three commissioners mentioned that some polling places had particularly long wait times for voters, most notably the East Manchester Township polling place at Northeastern Middle School.

Voters there waited up to four hours, and the county delayed releasing its initial results the night of the election because people were still waiting in line after the polls closed.

One factor contributing to the long lines was the extra time it took for poll workers to provide some voters with provisional ballots, or to spoil the mail-in ballots of voters who decided to vote in person instead.

Wheeler said the county will keep looking at solutions to improve that polling place for voters.

The state Department of State and Gov. Tom Wolf certified the Pennsylvania election results Tuesday, officially granting the state's 20 electoral votes to former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

Nationally, The Associated Press has called the race for Biden, who officially began the transition process Nov. 23, but President Donald Trump has not yet conceded and has pending litigation in several states, including Pennsylvania. 

The Electoral College will meet Dec. 14 to formally elect the next president.

More:York County certifies election results showing record 77% turnout

More:Rep. Seth Grove to lead state House investigation into election