Q&A with Matt Merriman-Preston About the Pennsylvania Primary Election, Mail-In Ballots, and More

This is a very confusing time. We spend hours trying to find toilet paper and disinfectant, worrying about access to critical medications that are being redirected to maybe cure COVID-19, and having our evening news interrupted by a ridiculous puppet President who lies and misleads us every single fucking day.

One point of confusion is the upcoming Primary Election in Pennsylvania, originally scheduled for the end of April, but now postponed until Tuesday, June 2, 2020. I have a lot of questions about this and related issues including mail-in ballots, campaigning, best practices so I went to folks who not only understand these issues but have the capacity to break it down for the rest of us.

One such person is Matt Merriman-Preston, owner of Ampersand Consulting who is also a calm, thoughtful, and intelligent man with a reassuring presence. He took the time to give us all the most current information on the election. If you have questions, please leave a comment and I will ask Matt to address them.

Matt Merriman-Preston, Ampersand Consulting

Your Name: Matt Merriman-Preston
Your Pronouns: he/him/his
Your Affilation(s): Political consultant and owner of Ampersand Consulting – a small firm that helps elect Democratic candidates

How do you describe your identity?  Cishet white male / always learning how to be a better ally

What are the details about the upcoming Pennsylvania Primary Election (date, time, etc)?  The Pennsylvania Legislature and the governor reached an agreement to move the Primary Election date to June 2, 2020.  It had originally been scheduled for the end of April.  You can apply to register to vote-by-mail today and a ballot will be mailed whenever they are ready.  Barring any other change, polling places will also be open for in-person voting on June 2 from 7am to 8pm.

What is the deadline to register to vote?  The new deadline to register ahead of the Primary Election will be May 18.

How does mail-in voting work? Do you recommend it over voting in person? Why or why not?’ For the first time ever, Pennsylvania had already passed legislation to allow us to vote by mail.  It’s a two step process.  First, you can go to VotesPA.com and click to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot.  It takes about 2 minutes to put in all of your information.  That deadline is May 26.  Second, your ballot will be mailed to you and you have to return it no later than Election Day (June 2).  You will fill in your ballot, put it in the provided secrecy envelope, sign that, and then put that envelope inside the larger envelope.  All of the instructions will be provided — take a look and follow them closely.  If you have ever done an absentee ballot, it should work the same way, but this is our first time, so take your time to do it carefully.

I have applied for a mail-in ballot.  Everyone in my office has applied for one.  Everyone in my household has applied for one.  I definitely recommend it — especially this year in the face of uncertainty.  It’s too important of an election year to risk missing it.

We need to be breaking down the barriers to voting by expanding vote-by-mail and early voting options ahead of November to make sure that everyone can participate safely.

How can I make sure my vote is counted?  If you receive a mail-in ballot, but you do not return it for any reason (if you lose it, forget to mail it, change your mind, etc.) then you may vote at your polling place, but you will have to vote by provisional ballot.

What about my neighbors vote? I usually drive them to the poll, but that’s off the table right now. What do I do? Make sure they know how to apply to vote-by-mail.  You can apply online at VotesPA.com, but you can also print out a paper application at that site as well.  The hope is also that by extending the date of the Primary Election that it will be safe to vote in person by June 2, but it would be best to prepare and not make any assumptions about what things will be like by then.

Who made the decision to reschedule the election in Pennsylvania until June? What are the pros and cons?  The Primary Election–when one where political parties nominate candidates to run in the General Election–is set by the Legislature.  This change was made by an agreement between State House, Senate, and the Governor.  The House and Senate both passed it unanimously.  It was supported by County Elections officials across the state.

The pros are pretty self-evident.  We have an imperative to keep people safe by preventing the spread of COVID-19.  The Primary Election was going to take place just at the time that the spread of the virus was projected to peak in PA.  In addition to the problems of multiple people touching the same machines all day long, our poll workers tend to be older and in the most vulnerable population.  We don’t want to expose them more than necessary.  In the lead-up to the Primary, counties have not been able to conduct training and were expecting difficulty staffing polling places.  Holding elections is one part of the process, but we also have to have confidence in the process.

I do have concern about the precedence that this sets.  While I’m supportive of moving the Primaries, we absolutely have to be sure that when we hold the General Election as scheduled that everyone has access to a ballot, that people can vote safely and securely, and that we all have confidence in the process.  I don’t think that any of us would be surprised to see President Trump tweeting about postponing elections indefinitely — which would be unconstitutional — but it’s not hard to imagine him pointing to the precedent of Primaries being moved.

What are some of the critical races in this region of Southwestern PA? This year, the big ticket item is that we are voting for president.  But we have state and local races that are also vitally important.  We’re also voting on Representatives in Congress.  Statewide, we are voting for Attorney General, Auditor General, and Treasurer.  All State House seats are up and some State Senate seats.  In Allegheny County, the hottest races in the Democratic Primary seem to be Summer Lee defending a challenge against Chris Roland and Adam Ravenstahl facing a challenge from Emily Kinkead, but there are others as well.  In the General Election, Pam Iovino will be defending the Senate seat that just flipped from Republican control in a Special Election last year, and Democrats are challenging a incumbents in a number of suburban seats.

The so-called down ballot races are often overlooked, but a crisis like the one that we are in can really show how serious it is to make the right decisions.  And if there’s any doubt about who some of the folks making life or death decisions are now:

Rep. Mike Zabel @RepZabel State Representative for Pennsylvania’s 163rd Legislative District in Delaware County

How can I support my preferred candidates while practicing social distancing?  Follow your favorite candidates on social media.  You can still organize by reaching voters on the phone.  If you are able, you can make a contribution.  Since candidates cannot go door-to-door–and in-person fundraisers being canceled–being able to afford paid communications is going to be essential this year.

What is the best source of information for Pennsylvania voters? Governor Wolf and Secretary of Health Levine are doing daily live-streamed updates.  This is a great source for updates on the virus and trustworthy information on health guidelines.  Secretary Levine in particular has been transparent, clear, and calming throughout this crisis, and I cannot imagine anyone else in her role.  Many candidates and officials are hosting virtual town halls, tele-conferences and meet-and-greets.  Follow them on social media and see who is working to engage voters even during this time.

What is happening around the country? Have other states changed their elections? What impact will that have on the Presidential General Election?  A number of states have moved their Primary Elections and others will follow.  Ohio is facing a situation where the Governor ordered polling places to close, but the Courts ordered the election to take place as scheduled, so they are facing a bit of a constitutional crisis.  Holding the General Election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is set in federal law.  (The date of the presidential inauguration–Jan. 20th–is written in the constitution.)  We are seeing a push to make mail-in voting universal, which would be a way to make sure that we can ensure that elections are fair and accessible.

Have we had this type of experience in prior elections? I’m not away of anything that remotely comes close to this in recent history.  During the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, polling places were open, but the result was low turnout and many voters getting infected.  We need to be breaking down the barriers to voting by expanding vote-by-mail and early voting options ahead of November to make sure that everyone can participate safely.

I don’t think that any of us would be surprised to see President Trump tweeting about postponing elections indefinitely — which would be unconstitutional — but it’s not hard to imagine him pointing to the precedent of Primaries being moved.

Is there anything you’d like to add? In addition to moving the Election Date, one other change in the law was to allow County officials to consolidate polling places.  This is a change that many requested because of the difficulty in having enough poll workers.  It will be important to (1) be sure to double-check your polling place if you are voting in person and (2) be vigilant about understanding who is impacted the most by consolidations.  The change is probably necessary for a smooth election, but we want to make sure that an unintended consequence is not making it more difficult for communities of color or people with disabilities to vote.

Suggestions on social media accounts to follow for information on voting?

You should always seek out and follow your elected officials.   But to name a few…

PA Dept of State (houses the State’s Election Bureau)  https://twitter.com/PAStateDept 
Fair Fight — Stacey Abrams’ organization promoting fair and free elections https://twitter.com/fairfightaction 
Common Cause PA — https://twitter.com/commoncausepa

Thank you, Matt.


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  • We applied for mail-in ballots before the state moved the primary. Does anyone know if we will have to apply for new ballots now that the primary has been rescheduled?

  • Thank you so much for posting this valuable info. I’ve forwarded this post to friends so they have the info as well.

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