Election 2021: Compared to primary, municipal election goes smoothly

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Tuesday's municipal election in York County went off with hardly a hitch — in sharp contrast to May's heavily criticized primary vote.

No major issues were reported during this week's election, President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said.

"Overall, things were pretty smooth," Wheeler said.

READ MORE: Live election results from York County and across Pa.

That was not the case for May's primary, which saw some polling places run out of ballots, among other issues. The county received heavy criticism in the wake of that election, including renewed calls by the York County GOP for Steve Ulrich to be fired from his position as elections director.

The backlash eventually caused a shakeup in the York County elections office, including seeing Ulrich demoted to deputy director.

READ MORE: 'This can never happen again': York County commissioners get earful over election

In an interview Wednesday, Ulrich said the elections office felt very good about Tuesday's election.

"We think everything worked very well. We hope the voters felt that it was a good day in all," he said.

Ulrich acknowledged that the office has been criticized in the past, with a lot of that criticism directed at him.

"I think what we were able to show (Tuesday) is that we're doing right by the voters of York County, and what we really need to move forward is for not just voters but politicians to understand we are working on behalf of the voters of York County, not against them," he said. "And I think the sooner that we're able to have everyone understand that, we'll be better off as a county, a commonwealth and a country. We aim to make things better, not to try to make things worse." 

York County is currently searching for a new elections director. Wheeler said she didn't have an update on the search and that the priority was meeting deadlines to certify the election results.

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Ulrich was hired as elections director after previous director Nikki Suchanic left in January 2020. The 2019 election saw election results delayed for days due to an array of issues, including a shortage of ballot-counting scanners, incorrect paper ballot sizes and many voters not knowing how to use new machines.

READ MORE: York County election chief to resign, recount to come after busted election

After May's primary election, as with other elections, York County officials spent time looking at what worked and what didn't.

"We will continue to do that, we will do a detailed look at this election on what worked well and what didn't," Wheeler said.

Pre-canvassing is something York County was able to do very well, Wheeler said. That's the practice of taking mail-in ballots out of their envelopes, checking for eligibility and preparing them for scanning. Pennsylvania allows for that to begin when polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day, but those votes can't be counted until the polls close.

Wheeler also pointed to various measures the county took to ensure polling sites didn't run out of ballots again.

That included increasing the amount of ballots ordered. Before this general election, the Board of Elections ordered 190,300 Election Day ballots and 13,675 provisional ballots, equal to 60% of the registered voters in each party.

In May, York County had taken the highest Election Day turnout from the past three municipal elections, rounded that number up and added 15%.

"We feel very confident that should we run into a situation where we're beginning to notice a need and there may be a need to replenish a certain district, we'll be able to do so that day,"  Ulrich said in October. "I think we all feel ... that 60% of all registered voters is a very good number."

Other changes included moving up the target date for the first printing of the ballots and using more staff to cover the phones on Election Day.

It's not just about making things more efficient for voters, Wheeler said.

"We will continue to do those things, we are continuing to refine processes and look at how we can make things more efficient and organized, not only for the voter, but also for the people that work for us, the poll workers," she said. 

READ MORE: York County elections director loses job after botched primary

Feedback has been standard, Wheeler said. Officials haven't heard of any substantial issues from the 161 precincts.

Turnout was also light, though slightly above other municipal election years.

With 100% of precincts reporting in, 86,178 total votes were cast out of 304,260 registered voters. That's a turnout of 28.32%.

Wheeler said that turnout is consistent with other off-year elections, though a little higher than others. Wheeler said the local school board races and the statewide judicial races likely played a role.

Ulrich said to reach 28% in 2021 is impressive when compared with 2019, which saw about 25% turnout.

"We just hope that people feel better about our operation and that we're working on their behalf," he said. 

York County Democratic Party chair Chad Baker said the organization was pleased with how the election was run.

"Our phone lines at our headquarters were pretty quiet. Normally, if there were issues we'd be getting contacted by our poll watchers and our volunteers, and we weren't hearing anything," he said Wednesday. "So it's my understanding that everything ran pretty smoothly and there were no issues, and obviously that's a good thing." 

York County Republican Committee chair Jeff Piccola did not respond to a request for comment.

Now, the Elections Department turns its attention to counting provisional and military ballots before the Nov. 22 deadline for certifying the results. Military ballots can be received through Nov. 9 if they were postmarked by Nov. 1.

Matt Enright can be reached via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.