Sep 26, 2022 - News

Philly has little room for error as mail-in voting window narrows

Illustration of a hand making a stopping motion coming out of a USPS mailbox

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Philadelphia voters will have a narrower window to vote by mail this November due in part to a recent squabble over veto powers involving the city's top brass.

Why it matters: Pennsylvania's largest city has a slim "margin of error" for mailing out ballots and reprogramming voting machines, election experts tell Axios, as high-profile races for governor and a U.S. Senate seat make the swing state one of the most closely watched this election cycle.

  • City commissioners can't afford to send mail-in ballots to the wrong addresses, said Al Schmidt, a former city commissioner who now works for the nonpartisan public policy group Committee of Seventy.
  • "It's really just a matter at this point of removing the net underneath the tightrope in the event that printing errors occur," Schmidt said.

What's happening: Under state law, Philadelphia could have begun sending out mail-in ballots as early as Sept. 19, 50 days before the midterm elections.

  • But the addition of two special elections earlier this month, and Council President Darrell Clarke's abrupt decision more than a week ago to schedule two more, now means the city is on track to send out mail-in ballots during the week of Oct. 10 — setting up a mail-in voting period of at most 29 days.

Catch up fast: Clarke on Sept. 9 added two special elections to the November ballot to fill City Council vacancies for the 7th and 9th districts after those legislators resigned to run for mayor. He left the two at-large seats open.

  • Less than a week later, Clarke unexpectedly scheduled the two additional special elections for those remaining seats.
  • That was after Mayor Jim Kenney issued a rare veto for a typically routine zoning bill — proposed by a legislator who had resigned to run for mayor.
  • Clarke said quickly filling the at-large seats is necessary to ensure the council can properly conduct its business, including overriding mayoral vetoes.

Of note: 13 members are now on City Council and more resignations are possible should other legislators decide to run for mayor. Twelve votes are needed to overturn a mayoral veto.

What they're saying: Nick Custodio, a spokesperson for City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, denied any delay in sending out ballots, telling Axios that the mail-in voting timeline is in line with past elections.

  • Since no-excuse mail-in voting was put in place in Pennsylvania in 2020, Philly has sent out mail-in ballots to voters between 24 days and 35 days before elections, Custodio said.

Threat level: Experts were split about whether this November's mail-in voting window could impact voter participation.

  • "Any time you compress the timeline for something there may be some folks that are lost in the cracks," said Scott Seeborg, of voting rights group All Voting is Local. "I don't expect any delay to be beneficial to any political party."

By the numbers: More than 114,000 Philly voters have already requested mail-in ballots for the Nov. 8 election.

Flashback: During the presidential election in 2020, the first year that Pennsylvania implemented no-excuse mail-in voting, more than 380,000 mail-in and absentee ballots were cast out of 745,000 total.

  • The following year, Philly voters cast more than 749,000 ballots in the municipal election. Of those, more than 74,100 were mail-in with 66,600 coming from Democrats.

Between the lines: Kallel Edwards, a state organizer for Black Voters Matter, told Axios that there's "still a lot of people that don’t know they have that [mail-in] option." He said, "a lot of folks have never heard about it."

  • Black Voters Matter is among the groups working to inform residents about their voting rights, and, in particular, to increase Black voter turnout, which was around 47% in Philadelphia in the 2020 election, according to the group's findings.
  • They've been phone banking and dropping off election information at homes in predominantly Black voting districts, such as the 179th in Northeast Philly.

Be smart: Seeborg noted that there's a "rip-cord option" for voters who requested mail-in ballots but prefer voting in person on Election Day.

  • Such voters must surrender their unused mail-in ballot at their polling place and sign an affidavit to vote in-person.
  • The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot is Nov. 1. All mail-in ballots must be returned by 8pm on Nov. 8.
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