A May 21 special election is set, but it’s unlikely that a satellite elections office will be placed at Penn State for students to apply for and receive absentee ballots before leaving for the semester.
The Centre County Board of Elections probably will not get approval from the state to operate a satellite elections office on Penn State’s campus for the upcoming special election, according to board Chairman Chuck Witmer. The state’s Bureau of Elections has indicated it would not approve a remote location for the board to operate the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE) system, he said.
Witmer said he sent a letter to the bureau last week on behalf of the board asking to connect to the SURE system from a satellite office, but has not yet received a response. Since the state already said the system could not be run remotely, he said it was unlikely to grant permission.
“We just can’t have an official satellite office to process all of this. However, we’ll be as accommodating as we can,” he said in a phone conversation Monday.
At a county Board of Elections meeting last week, county solicitor Betsy Dupuis said the board should be careful about accommodating Penn State students over other groups in Centre County.
”I don’t think we’re talking about a class of people that are any different than any other resident of the county, who might be working outside of Centre County at any given time,” she said. “Once we open that box, you know, everybody’s going to want to be accommodated.”
All members of the board said they wanted to be as accommodating as possible to student voters. Witmer said the board would fully support any organizations that want to help students apply for absentee ballots, deliver their applications to the county and deliver the ballots to students for them to fill out and mail back to the county.
Penn State voter turnout across all campus precincts excluding College West increased 530% in the November 2018 midterm election, Jack Califano, the regional organizing director for NextGen America, told the Centre Daily Times in November. Over 3,200 Penn State students voted in the 2018 midterms versus 700 who voted in the 2014 midterms, he said.
Marc Friedenberg, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, criticized the “inability” of the board to “streamline the absentee ballot process” through the establishment of a satellite voting office. Students have difficulty voting absentee, he said, because it involves sending mail three times, having a permanent address and knowing where to buy stamps — which many do not.
As an alternative to absentee voting, he said early voting is needed in Pennsylvania because there are many residents who face obstacles getting to the polls on Election Day.
“People have very busy lives,” he said. “If we make it harder for them to vote, they don’t do it.”
It would be a shame to deny Penn State students the ability to vote easily, he said, since “Penn State students turned out in such a big way in November.”
In a statement, Jon Anzur, campaign manager for 12th Congressional District Republican nominee Fred Keller, said Keller “supports the ability of the Centre County Board of Elections to conduct a secure election in accordance with current law and the bureau’s best judgment as to available resources.”
Zachary McKay, governmental affairs chair in the University Park Undergraduate Association at Penn State, said the organization was disappointed that the Board of Elections would not be able to open a satellite office on campus.
UPUA, he said, “will still be taking an active role in increasing political engagement.” The organization is hosting a town hall debate with State College Borough Council candidates and hosting tables to assist students in filling out absentee ballot applications the week of April 22.
“This way, students will still be able to make their voices heard and have their votes count, albeit without the full level of efficiency possible,” he wrote in an email.
Penn State classes end April 26 and commencement is the weekend of May 3-5. The last day to apply for an absentee ballot is May 14 by 5 p.m. and the special election and primary election will be held Tuesday, May 21.