NORRISTOWN — With the general election approaching in less than three months, Montgomery County election officials are working to ensure the mail-in component goes smoothly.
“There were certainly a lot of lessons learned in the primary [election] ... and plenty of things that were done for the first time ever,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer.
Soltysiak said the Montgomery County Department of Voter Services conducted “an internal review” to unpack the events of the state’s June 2 primary election. The analysis included feedback from several groups including the parties, poll workers and voters. The critiques would help with devising a plan for the general election on Nov. 3.
While in-person voting opportunities on Election Day were available for primary voters across the 425 precincts in Montgomery County, many opted to use mail-in ballots.
According to Soltysiak, it “actually represented the majority of the votes that were cast.”
“We were essentially preparing for a mail-in election that would see about the primary maybe 20,000 ballots, which was double what we saw in 2016,” he said. “We were making preparations for about 20,000, just based on the Act 77 change and that was a … fairly good and aggressive guess. The pandemic obviously came in and ultimately we saw 161,000 ballot requests.”
“Even the most aggressive far out guesstimate for what we might see in the general election back in January were in the 120,000-range, but that was the high end of what we thought we’d be seeing in the general election in 2020 prior to COVID,” he continued. “So the fact that we got 161,000 in the primary really was just astonishing in terms of volume and the changes in voting.”
Montgomery County encountered several issues during the primary election, including ballots mailed to the wrong party affiliates, which prolonged the overall counting process.
The county has since cut ties with ElectionIQ, of Stowe, Ohio, according to Soltysiak. The county’s election board found between five and six new firms for the job, with a recommendation expected to go before the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners during the Aug. 13 meeting.
“We are spending a lot of time really digging deep into the quality control processes that these potential vendors have that can ensure that those kinds of mistakes —which are unacceptable— don't happen, and ... of the choices we have, it seems … there are quality assurance vendors that we are excited about,” he said.
Additionally, Soltysiak said election officials acquired new equipment, in the form of high speed sorters, scanners, as well as 10 additional extractors, which were deemed necessary to handle the anticipated amount of ballots. He estimated it could cost at least $1.5 million.
“We are really … creating this operation from the ground up,” he said. All of this equipment is new.”
“We’re going through a process with each of these vendors to identify the best practices on how to utilize their equipment and we’re going through the process and logistical planning on our end to optimize the layout and the space and the staffing needs and training that will go into this operation,” he continued.
Staffing is also critical as man and machine work together to accomplish the daunting task of sorting, scanning and counting thousands of votes.
“We need to more than double our capacity in terms of what the equipment can do, and the people we have working the counts can do, so that we reduce that amount of time it takes to count all of the ballots,” Soltysiak said.
“I don’t yet have a good estimate on exactly how long it will take but I do know that no one will be happy to wait a week to find out the results of the election,” he continued. “So we’re doing everything we can to scale up to do this as quickly as we can and as accurately as we can.”
Soltysiak assured the public that departments are working diligently to hold an efficient and timely election on Nov. 3.
“So before the pandemic and before all the law changes we already were anticipating 2020 to be a very high turnout election so we are doing everything that can be done to ensure that there’s a free and fair and safe election in Montgomery County,” Soltysiak said.
One thing voters can do he said is if opting for a mail-in ballot, register and return it promptly.
“Do not delay. We can , meaning the county election board, and do a lot on our end to create the environment here for in-person voting and for mail-in voting and set us all up for the best chances of success, but there is a lot we don’t control ... there’s just a lot of unknowns with the pandemic, with the postal service and just general demands and stresses on the overall system,” he said. “So the more we all do to act early and to get your vote in if you’re intending to vote by mail,” the quicker and more efficient things will go, he said.