Allegheny County made an effort to coach election staff – PublicSource – and sustain with public points through the hectic November election
Allegheny County’s administration suffered inconsistent training for election workers and public communications in the November 2020 election, a new report showed. The county has not outlined any plans to solve the problems.
“By emphasizing the systems, we wanted to make the county more implicitly and explicitly accountable,” said Juliet Zavon, lead author of the report. “What level of competence do election workers need in this district?”
The report was produced by the Elections Task Force, which Zavon identified as an independent group of local residents with expertise in cybersecurity and election management. The document describes an outdated management system for election workers, a lack of training for many election workers, and insufficient resources for the public to ask questions and learn more about voting.
The report does not claim that the integrity of the 2020 elections was compromised or that there is any fraud. It contains recommendations for the district to revise its process, call for more transparency and communication, among other things to improve training procedures and to invest only three months until the May primaries.
An Allegheny County spokesman declined to comment on the report, but the county’s election officer, David Voye, answered questions from PublicSource about the county’s system.
Recruitment and training
A third of all election workers received no training prior to the November 3rd elections. Allegheny County’s election officer David Voye said in an email to PublicSource that the COVID-19 pandemic and 25-person convention limit had forced the county to abandon its pre-pandemic standard of training for any election worker. District officials said last fall that every worker would have access to online training, but that training was never offered.
Sam DeMarco, a Republican district councilor who sits on the electoral board, said the decision not to offer training to every poll worker was made solely by the electoral department and the board had not yet received an explanation. He said he understood the COVID-19-related restrictions on training for the spring primaries, but expected solutions to be found before the November elections.
“We’ve had five months since elementary school. We could have trained these people in five months, ”said DeMarco. “If someone had asked [the Board of Elections]Our thing would have been to train everyone. “
Councilor Bethany Hallam, a Democrat who sits on the board of directors, said mistakes due to a lack of education have led to isolated cases where a handful of preliminary ballots have been discarded.
“People’s votes were taken away from them because of the lack of training from election workers,” Hallam said. “And that’s not fair. It is not fair to election workers who were expected to get into this situation without proper training. “
The report lists other mistakes made by election workers as a result of inadequate training.
The poll workers at Fox Chapel were unaware that the preliminary vote would be the same as the regular vote. Election workers in Swissvale illegally asked voters for photo ID. Several polling stations in Pittsburgh failed to understand the procedures used to spoil mail-in ballot papers. This is the process that allows someone who has requested a mail-in ballot to vote in person instead, even though it was a state and county priority prior to the election.
DeMarco said he himself received reports of election workers who lack procedural awareness. “They still had people out there complaining that they didn’t know how to deal with a preliminary ballot or affidavit,” he said. “Some people did not have the election book signed.”
Some workers who had received training said it was not thorough enough.
“I didn’t think I was ready to do the job,” said first-time poll worker Charlene David. “They went through everything, but it was early October and four weeks later we have a choice. Well there [were] Lots of things that I couldn’t remember … There were lots of things that I didn’t understand and I can’t remember whether or not you looked through those things during training. “
Although more than enough people registered to take the surveys, the county’s referral system made the surveys difficult to manage. Many prospective election workers did not hear from the county and received no response when they contacted them by phone and email. The report quotes a number of volunteers who went to the election department office and found that the election worker coordination system was partly based on pen and paper.
Poll worker Nathaniel Yap discovered this when he walked into the office after unsuccessfully calling and emailing to find his assignment.
“I think they have been working with processes that feel like they are from the 1980s or something,” Yap said in an interview with PublicSource. “She brought a stack of Manila files and searched the pages.”
Participants can register via an online portal to take part in the surveys. Voye said the county used an “old digital system” that is now being phased out.
Darcy Zotter, who settled in Pittsburgh after retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service, said she had received personal training but no one in the county contacted her to give her an election day assignment.
She said she called the electoral department and was surprised when the county clerk on the other end tried “fairly confidently” to convince her to be an electoral judge, despite Zotter’s first time being an electoral officer. (Each polling station is manned by at least two employees and two inspectors and is managed by an electoral judge.)
Although there was a large backlog of willing electoral workers, the electoral department asked some electoral workers to recruit their own teams. The report found that the department was “desperately looking for 40 more election workers” a few days before the election.
Yap said he was appointed electoral judge in October but the rest of the slots at his location were vacant. A member of the electoral department told him they would “try to help” fill them in, but another member of staff told him he could recruit his own team for November 3rd.
“For the first time people, it’s kind of a strange process,” said Yap. “It shouldn’t be like that, should it? You shouldn’t have to go out and find people yourself. “
Voye said it was one of “many techniques” used by electoral workers and found that electoral officials “welcome the opportunity to fill vacancies on their boards”.
Hallam and DeMarco said insufficient staffing in the electoral department resulted in a backlog of unanswered phone calls in the run-up to election day. Voters trying to navigate a new mail-in voting system and questioning staff in the dark about their duties were greeted with silence when they contacted the county.
Questions from the public poured into social media, where people like Hallam tried to address them individually.
“I worked all day and was on Twitter all night helping people because they were scared and confused,” Hallam said. “It was such a crucial choice and there was so much at stake and people just didn’t have the information they needed.”
Pennsylvania expanded its mail-in voting system in 2019, I’ll do it open to all voters without needing an apology. DeMarco said the 2019 legislation constitutes an “unfunded mandate” which would create confusion among voters and no funding for counties to improve voter education and customer service.
Voye did not disclose how many customer service staff were available in connection with the election, but said a county call center and temporary staff were available to help answer questions from the public.
Zavon’s report tracks each group of topics with recommendations. It urges the county to dedicate more staff to public communication during election season and create a more intuitive one website. It requires more extensive training of all election workers and a computerized system to track the tasks of election workers.
With an upcoming area code on May 18 – including a controversial mayor area code on the Pittsburgh ballot – preparations are already underway.
Hallam said she did not expect the electoral board to move on the issues despite her calls to action. She sits on the three-person board of directors with DeMarco and Democrat Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive.
Hallam said she felt other board members could[n’t] is less concerned with educating voters and improving the training and organization of election workers. If she raised issues during board meetings, they were dismissed as non-issues.
“All of these issues have been raised at every meeting of the election committee,” Hallam said of the report. “None of them were addressed … so why should I be confident that these issues will be addressed?”
A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined to comment on his role on the electoral board. DeMarco said he “had no confidence” that the issues would be addressed and had placed responsibility directly with the electoral department rather than the board.
“These things happened in November and no one has come up with a plan to tell us how to approach all of these things,” he said. “How can I rely on anything?
“There are many questions about this [upcoming] primary. Will there be answers? So far the answer is no. “
Charlie Wolfson is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @chwolfson.
This story has been verified by Danielle Cruz.