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Berks County officials want guidance from Legislature on ballot drop boxes

Berks County voters won’t be seeing an increase in drop boxes anytime soon.

The Berks County Board of Elections decided at a meeting Thursday that the county won’t explore what it would take to expand the number of ballot drop boxes because state lawmakers have failed to address the shortcomings of Pennsylvania’s election law.

In the 2020 presidential election and this year’s primaries, the county installed a pair of drop boxes where voters could hand deliver the ballots they received in the mail. One was placed in the lobby of the Berks County Services Center in Reading and the other inside the Berks County Agricultural Center in Bern Township.

Members of the Berks County Democratic Committee requested that the board consider adding more for upcoming elections, in particular the 2022 elections that will feature hotly contested races for governor and a U.S. Senate seat.

Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt introduced the recommendation, saying the county is anticipating high voter turnout in 2022. He proposed having officials from the elections office collect information about the cost and logistics of installing three or four additional drop boxes throughout the county.

“We’re going to have fairly decent turnout and I look at this as taking some of the pressure off the people who work in our elections office,” he said. “So, at the very least, I support exploring the cost and logistics associated with expanding the number of drop boxes we have now.”

Commissioner Christian Leinbach said he refuses to do anything in regards to using more drop boxes, even collecting information, until the state takes action on election reform.

“There are no standards for drop boxes,” he said. “I think it is shameful that we’re still waiting for guidance from the state on some very basic election issues like the use of drop boxes. So I don’t support adding anything until we get clarification from the Legislature.”

Leinbach said he’s frustrated that there has been no action taken on legislation calling for an extension of the mailed ballot application deadline and permission for counties to begin the process of opening those mailed ballots before Election Day.

“The Legislature and the governor need to get their act together,” he said. “They need to stop expecting counties to just kind of figure it out as they go and then letting counties get kicked in the teeth because they had to make their own decisions on these things. It’s just very frustrating.”

Barnhardt said the lack of answers from Harrisburg is precisely the reason why moving forward now with a study of increasing the number of drop boxes makes sense.

“If we wait for the state to do something about this, we’ll probably all be retired by that time,” he told his colleagues. “But let’s just say they do come to an agreement in a month or two, we would already have our homework done. This is almost like a homework assignment that we could kind of put on a shelf. And if the powers that be in Harrisburg ever come together at least we would have a plan of action going forward.”

Commissioner Michael Rivera said he needed more time to figure out how he felt about increasing the use of drop boxes, which led him to abstain from the vote.

“I want to give this a little more thought and then get back to this,” he said.

The members each said they were willing to revisit the issue of additional drop boxes in the future.

The board also:

• Voted to approve piloting the use of electronic poll books at five voting locations this fall.

The precincts where the books will be available are at Amanda E. Stoudt Elementary School in Reading, the former Fox East movie theater in Exeter Township, St. Johns Lutheran Church in Mohnton, Body Zone Sports and Wellness Complex in Spring Township and the Tilden Township municipal building.

Electronic poll books, which are updated in real time on a closed system, resemble a tablet computer. They will contain the entire county voter registration database and will replace the paper rosters of registered voters at each precinct on Election Day.

The board said the elections office will send letters to voters in those five precincts alerting them that the books will be available on Election Day and provide them with information about what the process entails.

Barnhardt said the county plans to have the books at all polling locations for the 2022 primary.

• Voted to extend higher paychecks for those who choose to work the polls this fall, acknowledging they may once again be faced with a shortage of people willing to spend the day signing in voters and making sure the voting system runs smoothly.

The board voted to keep the daily wage poll workers receive at $180 and $200 for election judges for the upcoming November election — the same rate that was approved for the 2020 elections. In previous years under normal circumstances, the county has paid election judges $120 and all other positions $110.

They also voted to continue paying election workers with debit cards rather than printed checks. The primary election was the first time the poll workers were paid with the new system.

In the days following the primary election, the county controller and election offices received a combined two dozen calls with a variety of complaints about the cards. Controller Sandy Graffius took full blame for any issues that arose, saying she should have provided more training about the new payment system.

This time around, election officials said they will include more detailed instructions with the debit cards to ensure workers are better informed about how to use the new payment method.

• Voted to rent the ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel on Election Day.

The ballroom will serve as the location where election workers will open and scan the ballots that have arrived by mail. These ballots will be transported to the hotel in a locked box truck accompanied by a deputy sheriff to ensure the process is secure.

• Voted to approve two ballot questions that will be decided on by Reading residents.

The first question involves whether or not to eliminate part of the city’s charter that allows for the recall of local elected officials, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The second question involves removing from the city’s charter a process by which citizens can propose amendments to the charter. City officials have said the process was incorrectly included in the charter.


Source: Berkshire mont

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