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Election Officials Work To Ease Fears Over Voting In A Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Across the country, people have been complaining that their mail is coming late or not at all, and that has voters, campaigns and election officials worried. But the stakes feel particularly high in battleground states like Pennsylvania, and election officials are trying to balance mail delivery problems and fears from voters. Lucy Perkins of member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports.

LUCY PERKINS, BYLINE: What happened to voter Patricia DeMarco is what everyone is trying to avoid in November.

PATRICIA DEMARCO: I was horrified. I was (laughter) really horrified. I was shocked. And I was, like, there's no way I'm not going to vote.

PERKINS: Patricia is 74 and lives outside Pittsburgh. She's particularly vulnerable to COVID, so she decided to vote by mail in the June primary. She got her ballot, filled it out and sent it back. But when she went online to check if it was received, nothing came up. So on Election Day, she went to her polling place.

DEMARCO: I did. I wore a - you know, a surgical type of mask, and then I had a scarf over my face as well.

PERKINS: After waiting in a long line, poll workers had her fill out a provisional ballot in case her other one got lost. There are barcodes on ballots to ensure that you can't vote twice. Still, she was alarmed. She'd never missed an election before and had no intention of starting in 2020.

DEMARCO: People take voting seriously in this town, and I don't like to see impediments cast against people who are trying to vote and exercise their civic responsibility.

PERKINS: It's still unclear what happened to Patricia's original ballot. But what's becoming very obvious is that the state's vote-by-mail deadline may not work this year. Right now, voters can request a ballot up until seven days before the election. But the postal service says it needs a week to deliver that ballot and another week to return it to the election office. So officials are trying to do two things at once - change the deadlines and calm people's fears.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar recently addressed those concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHY BOOCKVAR: The department and county election offices are working day and night to make sure that every eligible Pennsylvanian's vote is counted in November, no matter whether they vote by mail or they vote in person.

PERKINS: She's asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots to be received by three days, until the Friday after the election. The state's also going to cover postage and is working with counties to start mailing out ballots earlier in September. Another solution - drop boxes.

Here's Vic Walczak with the Pennsylvania ACLU.

VIC WALCZAK: People can drop off their ballots. They will be picked up and taken by the Department of collections and counted. You don't have to worry about whether your ballot is going to be delivered in time by the U.S. Postal Service.

PERKINS: But the Trump campaign is suing every elections department in the state over the practice, alleging the possibility of voter fraud. The campaign didn't make anyone available for an interview, but a senior campaign official said that, quote, "President Trump will continue fighting for a free, fair, transparent election so that every valid ballot counts and counts once." Walczak represents several voting rights groups in the lawsuit.

WALCZAK: While the Trump campaign raises the specter of fraud, they have not pointed to a single instance of that kind of fraud happening. On the other hand, you have people who are legitimately being disenfranchised because the mail-in ballot system doesn't work well enough.

PERKINS: Given that it's already August, experts say drop boxes are the best bet states have to alleviate fears. Matt Weil is director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

MATT WEIL: Of the things that you could do to make vote by mail work, they are one of the best options left. Drop boxes tend to not be very expensive and can be rolled out on a pretty quick timeline.

PERKINS: With ballots getting mailed out next month, the pennsylvania attorney general wants the state Supreme Court to take up these issues as soon as possible.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Perkins in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS AND JULIA STONE'S "PAPER AEROPLANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.