Election committee

Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter

Washington County Elections Director Melanie Ostrander demonstrates a new voting machine Tuesday night for the Election Review Committee.

Editor's note: The commissioners’ town hall meeting from 9 a.m. to noon March 16 in the Anthony M. Lombardi Education and Conference Center at Mon Valley Hospital has been canceled.

The burning question once the polls close after any election is, “Who won?”

Under Pennsylvania’s new foray into no-excuse, mail-in balloting, there could be a significant lag in reporting results if scads of voters take advantage of it.

It’s not the tabulating of paper ballots that would slow the process. Elections Director Melanie Ostrander has a new, high-speed scanner to handle that task in the April 28 primary, and a second one is on order for the Nov. 3 general election.

The most time-consuming job will be opening all those envelopes, perhaps more than triple the number usually returned under the previous system that allowed only absentee balloting.

By law, mailed ballots can’t be opened until polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, the latest they can arrive in the elections office, although they can be sorted in advance by precinct.

That was one takeaway Tuesday night from the initial meeting of the Washington County Election Review Committee, appointed earlier this month by the county commissioners.

David Ball, who was unanimously chosen chairman of the committee by his fellow members, calculated an estimate that there could be 13,000 absentee ballots in the primary and 35,000 in the general election.

“It’s a guess,” Ball said.

Compare this with 1,436 absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential primary and 5,100 in that year’s presidential election.

A projection by the Pennsylvania Department of State estimates Washington Countians could cast 33,573 mail-in ballots this year, based on statistics from states that have previously transitioned to mail-in balloting.

The Washington County elections office has a staff of five, with two temporary workers assigned to the office itself and six who deal with equipment used at the polls. Potentially, another nine – three appointees per commissioner – could also help.

“If additional absentee ballot people will be hired, what training do they need?” Ball queried as part of a five-page “points for discussion” he presented Tuesday night.

Ball did not address what it might cost the county if the commissioners choose to hire more people to open absentee ballots, which are placed in two envelopes, one known as a security envelope to keep choices secret and the other, a mailing envelope that must show a return address as part of a voter’s declaration.

Absentee ballots are sorted as they arrive, but the onslaught of mail-in ballots, plus the new deadline may mean they arrive on a typically hectic Election Day. Absentee ballots were previously due the Friday before the election. One aspect remains the same: postmarks don’t count. The ballot must be physically inside the elections office by the deadline.

A majority of the county commissioners, who are the county board of elections in years when they are not on the ballot, need to be present, by law, when absentee ballots are opened.

Ball asked the committee to consider establishing a target time for reporting results and asked, “Will we report machine count and then update with absentee count?”

Ostrander said the tabulation from the voting machines would appear on the county’s website, which would be updated when the count of absentee and mail-in ballots was complete.

He also queried if there was “any way we can prioritize reporting big precincts?”

Washington precincts close to Courthouse Square sometimes drop off their materials and results within 15 or 20 minutes of the polls closing. Others arrive hours later. The law, Ostrander says, imposes a 2 a.m. Wednesday deadline.

David Kresh, a member of the post-election canvass board, asked, “How do you educate the people to have a reasonable expectation of when they’re going to get numbers? And are people on board with those expectations?”

In addition to answering the question of “Who won?” is another: Are the results accurate?

Larry Mauro, who was chosen as vice chairman of the committee, asked about a post-election audit, pulling out a sample of paper ballots and checking to see if they corresponded with the overall vote recorded from machine and absentee ballot totals.

“I’ve been kind of working my way through the literature,” said Ball, who is also a member of a Republican state committee group that is reviewing new voting machines.

“Two thousand votes or 2% is something they suggested as a random sample.”

In September, Washington County’s election board picked Omaha-based Election Systems and Software to provide machines at a cost of $2.9 million.

Ball said after Tuesday’s meeting, “I like having a paper trail. These are good machines.”

Problems arose last year in other Pennsylvania counties using different systems. Ostrander said Greene County last year used in both the primary and general elections the same type of voting machines that Washington County purchased, and Greene reported experiencing no significant issues.

A moving company will be dropping off voting machines at polling places on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before the election, Ostrander said.

Ball wants the committee to determine if a secure storage area for voting machines, as required by law, is available at each polling place.

Tuesday night’s meeting was open to the public, and Richard Woods, judge of elections for South Strabane Township’s sixth precinct, said he’d be responsible for voting machine security on election days, but not when the equipment is dropped off days before the election and post-election until it is picked up.

Ball also discussed poll worker training on the new voting machines, which began Feb. 18 and continues on selected dates through April 13 at the Courthouse Square office building.

Ostrander plans to give hands-on demonstrations of the new equipment from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 10 in the public meeting room of Citizens Library, Washington; 10 a.m. March 13 at Courthouse Square Public Meeting Room, Washington; a commissioners’ town hall meeting from 9 a.m. to noon March 16 in the Anthony M. Lombardi Education and Conference Center at Mon Valley Hospital, 1163 Country Club Road, Monongahela; and from 6 to 8 p.m. March 19 in the public meeting room of Citizens Library.

Peters Township Library also expressed an interest in hosting a voting machine and scanner demonstration, but the date and time have not yet been chosen.

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