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How Coronavirus Pandemic Is Reshaping Primary Voting


A pandemic in the middle of an election year is forcing local officials across the country to reshape election processes. For most Americans, the most visible change is how they'll vote and the new health precautions at the polls. Those new procedures will get a test run next week as several states resume primaries that were postponed. As part of our look at how the pandemic is reshaping voting, Lucy Perkins from member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports.

LUCY PERKINS, BYLINE: The plan that many election departments across the country are following has two parts. The first - expand voting by mail. Luckily, Pennsylvania passed a law last year that allows anyone to vote by mail, no excuse needed. And in Pittsburgh, officials have been aggressively pushing the idea. Rich Fitzgerald is the county executive and sits on the board of elections.

RICH FITZGERALD: We saw what happened in Wisconsin where many people have come down with the coronavirus, both poll workers and voters. So we certainly want to limit that.

PERKINS: They sent vote-by-mail applications with pre-stamped envelopes to every registered voter in the county. The response has been overwhelming. More than 280,000 people applied, and local officials have processed more applications than anywhere else in the state. That increase is a trend, says Kathleen Hale. She teaches political science at Auburn University and specializes in election administration.

KATHLEEN HALE: Every state is seeing an increase in requests to vote by mail, one of them a factor of 10 or more. It's definitely huge.

PERKINS: Which brings us to step two of the plan - reduce the number of places where the virus could spread on Election Day. More than 75% of polling places have been cut in Pittsburgh. And in addition to concerns about voters spreading the virus, Fitzgerald is also thinking about the people working at the polls.

FITZGERALD: We don't want to have long lines. We really don't. But we also - if we try to have more polling places and we don't have enough workers, then we will have long lines.

PERKINS: It was hard enough to find poll workers when things were normal, so cutting down polling places means they'll have fewer places to staff. People who do want to vote in person will be asked to wear masks, practice social distancing and bring their own pens to mark their ballots. When Krysia Kubiak heard that there might not be enough poll workers to staff the primary, she signed up right away. She's 47 and plans to bring her own mask and gloves in addition to what the county will provide.

KRYSIA KUBIAK: I was really concerned about the fact that most of our polling workers are older and younger people needed to step up and make sure that they didn't need to go in.

PERKINS: Right now, Pittsburgh officials believe they have enough supplies and people to run the upcoming primary. But the general election is farther off, and election officials across the country don't know what the world will look like then. The virus could be gone or it could surge again, as many expect. Kathleen Hale says that's been hard for election workers trying to map out November.

HALE: It's very unsatisfying not to know.

PERKINS: And what's even more unsatisfying, she says, is that the election could look really different depending on where you are.

HALE: You know, what's going to be possible in New York City, for example, is probably going to be very different than what's possible and considered normal and acceptable behavior in Lee County, Ala., where Auburn University is and where I am right now. They are probably going to be two very different things.

PERKINS: Ironically, if Pittsburgh's plan works, we probably won't have much to show for it on election night because it'll likely take days to count all the mailed in ballots. For NPR News, I'm Lucy Perkins in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "FOGGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.