The COVID-19 health crisis is transforming both the national and local election process in the United States. The vast majority of states have turned to a mail-in ballot system to protect both poll workers and voters. However, legislation regarding mail-in ballots varies widely state-by-state, and Pennsylvania faces a unique set of challenges in developing an adequate mail-in system as the November presidential election rapidly approaches.
Though most Penn students have left campus, our civic duty to vote in the upcoming Pennsylvania elections remains just as, if not more important than ever. As a registered voter in Pennsylvania, I recently applied for a mail-in ballot form before the mid-May deadline, however, the shift in the PA voting system to primarily mail-in ballots presents unprecedented obstacles.
Though elections are pillars of our democracy, heated partisan debates in Washington regarding mail-in ballots are corroding the essence of fair votership. The ramifications of the pandemic are being exploited as a means to restrict and control voter access, and it erodes faith in government and the democratic process.
The abrupt transition to a primarily vote-by-mail system puts immense pressure on local officials to scale their printing and postal infrastructure to effectively reach voters. Few printing companies have the capacity to mass-supply ballots and envelopes, and in Pennsylvania alone, demand for mail-in ballots has increased over ten-fold from the 2016 primary. Though Congress has approved $400 million for pandemic-related election costs in 2020, experts argue that a minimum of $2 billion more is vital for a successful mail-in election. This would entail a dramatic increase in public investments and massive public education initiatives.
Since Pennsylvania has not accepted mail-in ballots in previous elections, additional funding to inform citizens about the new voting process is crucial to ensuring a fair election. Governor Tom Wolf has launched an awareness campaign via radio, television, social media, and mobile apps, and sent over four million postcards to primary voters. However, the current shortage of state funds may limit the programs’ expansion and effectiveness. In addition to the many challenges that accompany structural changes in voting procedures, Pennsylvania will also have to confront a crumbling postal system.
Trump’s lack of executive support for the USPS risks jeopardizing the safe delivery and return of mail in ballots to county election offices. The USPS’s long-term financial troubles have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but the Trump administration has blocked potential emergency funding based on claims that increasing rates for internet shipping companies will make up for lost revenue. In the $2.2 trillion emergency stimulus package, the national postal service only received $10 billion in loans, while House Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for a $25 billion cash infusion.
As an essential federal agency, the USPS relies on Congressional funding to operate and pay 630,000 employees, so traditional bankruptcy proceedings would be largely ineffective. The USPS projects that it will lose $2 billion monthly due to the dramatic decrease in the volume of first-class and marketing mail, despite increased public reliance on postal services for upcoming elections. In an effort to underscore the urgent need for fiscal support, National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric V. Rolando recently stated that the Postal Service “will exhaust its cash on hand by the end of September if Congress and the White House fail to intervene.”
Native Philadelphian, David Garnick, a College first-year studying Political Science and Urban Studies, recently submitted an absentee ballot to his county’s electoral office and stated that “for me, an absentee ballot was much more accessible and easy.” He believes that the state has been presented with an opportunity “to end voter suppression and general disenfranchisement” through the expansion of the mail-in and absentee voter system.
As a key swing state, Pennsylvania must be diligent in ensuring that the upcoming elections are equitable and accessible to all through an expanded mail-in voting system. Hopefully, the June 2nd primary will be one that accurately represents the state’s diverse population, while also catalyzing widespread electoral reform.
MORGAN GILFOND is a rising College sophomore from New York City studying Economics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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