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With Legal Challenges Looming, Election Officials Advise Early Voters to Use Ballot Drop-Off Locations

Pennsylvania’s election laws, notably the year-old provision for early mail-in voting, have been the subject of numerous recent legal challenges, and may be targeted again as the 2020 General Election unfolds.

With Election Day (November 3rd) less than a week away, Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar are urging voters to avoid using the U.S. Mail to submit their completed ballots. Instead, voters should personally deliver their completed ballots to an election office or official drop box in their home county to ensure that the ballots arrive in time to be counted.

The Votes PA website offers a searchable listing of all drop-off locations. The digital tool includes an interactive map, as well as complete instructions for voting early. Under current law, county election offices must count early ballots received up to three days after Election Day, providing the ballot was postmarked on or before November 3rd. However, Pennsylvania’s Republican Party has sued to prevent late-arriving ballots to be counted.

On October 28th, with Election Day close at-hand, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal of a State Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the three-day deadline extension. But conservative members of the federal high court expressed skepticism of the underlying Constitutionality of the three-day extension, leaving open the possibility that the matter could be litigated further after Election Day.

As a result, the Wolf administration has instructed counties to keep late-arriving ballots separate from those that arrive on or before November 3rd, in case those ballots must be voided.

Therefore, a voter can avoid the risk of having their ballot invalidated by delivering the completed ballot (inside both official envelopes as instructed) in person to a county election office or drop-off location.

As an alternative, a voter may “spoil” their mail-in ballot by bringing it (with both official envelopes) to their local polling place on Election Day. The voter will have to surrender the mail-in ballot but will be able to vote live on a voting machine.

Amid the deadline uncertainty, some Pennsylvania voters say they requested mail-in ballots weeks ago but have yet to receive them. Voters who would like to check the status of their mail-in ballot request can do so on the PA Voter Services website by entering their name, date of birth, and county of voter registration.

Voters who haven’t received their mail-in ballot may go to a county election office and request a replacement. Those who do not receive their ballot by Election Day may go to their local polling place and ask to cast a provisional ballot. If the election office doesn’t receive a completed mail-in ballot from that voter, then the provisional vote will be counted.

Voters who receive a mail-in ballot on or shortly before Election Day may bring the entire ballot packet to the polls on Election Day, surrender the ballot packet, and vote in person.

Many PA Counties Say They Won’t Start Counting Votes Until the Day After In-Person Polls Close

With the outcome of the presidential election potentially hanging in the balance, at least four Pennsylvania counties and perhaps seven do not intend to start counting early ballots until the day after in-person polls close.

In a survey conducted by the Penn Capital-Star, election officials from Cumberland, Greene, Juniata, and Montour counties all stated they would begin recording “mail-in” votes (including those early ballots delivered personally by voters) on November 4th. Juniata County said it would start opening ballot envelopes at 8 p.m. on Election Night (November 3rd) and begin recording the votes the following morning. But the other three counties don’t plan to touch the envelopes until the following day.

WITF reported that Beaver, Butler, and Mercer counties also plan to delay the counting of early ballots until November 4th.

Cumberland County has issued almost 60,000 approved mail-in ballots to voters. Butler has issued about 40,000, and Beaver about 35,000. Mercer has issued about 19,000. The other three counties have each issued about 5,100 or fewer.

Thirty-two of the state’s 67 counties told the Capital-Star they will begin counting early votes on Election Day while the polls are still open statewide. Thirty-one counties did not respond to the survey.

“Why do these nitty-gritty details matter? Because Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that does not open mail-in ballots before Election Day – a dubious distinction during a pandemic that’s driven a record number of people to vote by mail, and one that election officials have said for months will prolong the vote count in the November 3rd election,” the news organization reported.

Philadelphia, which has issued about 439,000 mail-in ballots, plans to have a staff of “hundreds of people” working on those early ballots starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day. The county has activated 22 automated letter openers and 12 scanners to tally votes.

Allegheny County has issued about 413,000 mail-in ballots and will employ more than 300 permanent and temporary staff, as well as five letter openers and 10 scanners.

Forest County in the Northwest region of the state has issued the fewest mail-in ballots with 842. The county’s election officials did not respond to the Capital-Star survey.

“Pennsylvania’s status as a swing state for the presidential election means the nation could be waiting for a final tally from the Commonwealth in order to know who the next president will be,” WITF reported. “That’s partly why [Governor] Wolf administration officials urge counties to start processing mail-in ballots earlier.”

Additional COVID Relief Funding Blocked by Majority Leadership in Washington and Harrisburg

One week after the Republican-led Pennsylvania General Assembly left Harrisburg without enacting a plan to spend $1.3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money that has been allocated to the Commonwealth, the Republican-led U.S. Senate left Washington, D.C., without advancing or proposing a new COVID-19 stimulus package.

PA Senate Democrats have proposed a spending plan – known as PA CARES Part 2 – for the state’s remaining federal relief funding that includes $575 million for small businesses and nonprofits, $141 million for higher education, $125 million for high-Medicaid hospitals, $125 million for family utility bill assistance, $100 million for worker hazard pay, $75 million for child care, $25 million for public safety, $15 million for food security programs, and $150 million for property tax relief. But the PA Senate’s majority leadership, which controls the flow of legislation in the chamber, recessed on October 21st with no new plan in place. The Senate is scheduled to reconvene on November 10th.

On the federal level, the Democratic-led U.S. House adopted a second round of COVID relief in May. But the U.S. Senate has refused to consider the legislation – which is known as the HEROES Act – and, despite often-conflicting messages from the White House that have encouraged a new round of spending, U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has reportedly stifled negotiations on a compromise package.

Bloomberg reported that the White House objects to spending “to bail out what [the president] said are poorly run Democratic state and local governments.” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi countered that the administration “wasn’t committed to a strategic plan to ‘crush the virus.’”

On the same day that the U.S. Senate recessed, U.S. stocks plummeted. And they continued to fall in ensuing days. The Wall Street Journal reported that October is shaping up to be the worst month for the Dow Jones index since March, losing 7% for the week ending October 30th. It has lost about 2,500 points from its month-long peak on October 12 and about 3,000 points from its pandemic-period high (September 2nd).

Many Workers Aren’t Using or Don’t Know About Expanded Paid Leave Options Enacted by Congress in March

Millions of American workers have taken leave from their jobs this year because of COVID-19, but with infection rates spiking again, many workers are finding that they have exhausted the leave available to them or they can’t afford to take additional leave at a reduced pay rate, according to The Wall Street Journal.

And many more workers are having difficulty understanding what type of leave they may have available to them.

“Workers have used time-off policies during the pandemic at two to three times the rate they did previously,” the newspaper reported, citing information provided by a trade group that represents employers and insurers on disability management issues.

“Sedgwick, the largest administrator of claims for self-insured employers, has processed around 900,000 COVID-19-related leave requests since March. Eighty percent of those were unpaid leaves, which includes federal programs like Family and Medical Leave as well as personal leaves of absence.”

Roughly half of private-sector workers in the U.S. are eligible for leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act adopted by Congress in March. It includes two weeks of paid leave (at the employee’s full regular rate) for individuals who are subject to a government quarantine order due to COVID-19, have been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine, or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking a medical diagnosis.

Workers are eligible for two weeks of paid leave at two-thirds their regular rate if the worker is caring for a person who is subject to a quarantine order or who is self-quarantining due to COVID-19, or if the worker is “experiencing any other substantially-similar condition specified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

Workers are eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds their regular rate if the worker is caring for his or her child whose school or place of care is closed or unavailable due to COVID-19.

Once an employee’s leave eligibility expires, employers have discretion to provide leave, paid or not, and to hold an employee’s place on the job should the worker take additional leave.

Benefits companies say that few workers appear to have taken the federally protected leave since is became available on April 1st, the Journal reported: “At Sedgwick, fewer than 10,000 of the nearly 900,000 COVID-19-related claims tapped the emergency FFCRA leave. At insurer Lincoln Financial Group, 3% of leave requests filed for COVID-19 reasons were FFCRA claims.”

In early October, Democratic committee leaders in the U.S. House wrote to U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia requesting information and a briefing on the Department of Labor’s implementation of paid leave provisions in the FFCRA. The letter followed an August report by the Department’s Inspector General which identified “key flaws in the administration’s implementation of the program.”

Also, a federal judge in New York ruled that the administration defied Congress’ intent in implementing the law. The members of Congress are concerned that the administration is “attempting to limit the number of workers who use paid sick leave and paid family leave benefits to which they are entitled.”

American Poverty Grows by 8 Million During Pandemic as Billionaire Wealth Soars to Record High

The number of Americans who are living in poverty has grown by 8 million since May, yet the combined wealth of the nation’s billionaires has soared by 27% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent studies compiled by NBC News and Salon.

Columbia University conducted the study that found an increase in poverty rates after early Coronavirus relief, provided by the federal CARES Act, ended. That relief included the one-time stimulus payment of $1,200 to most Americans, as well as the extra $600 per week in benefits to unemployed workers.

These were “successful at offsetting growing poverty rates in the spring, [but] the effects were short-lived,” NBC News reported.

Poverty rates began to grow near the end of the summer, particularly among minorities and children. The CARES Act saved about 18 million Americans from poverty in April, but by September, only about 4 million people had been protected from poverty.

Separate from the Columbia study, researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that 6 million Americans have entered poverty within the last three months. Even rebounding employment numbers haven’t been enough to stem the growth of poverty.

“The gains in employment throughout the summer have not been enough to offset the dwindling income support,” one of the Columbia study’s authors wrote.

At the other end of the wealth continuum, the wealth of billionaires worldwide surpassed $10 trillion for the first time in July and reached $10.2 trillion, surpassing the $8.9 trillion in combined wealth recorded in 2017, according to Swiss Bank UBS and the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

In the United States, billionaire wealth has grown by $792 billion during the pandemic and now tops $3.7 trillion, according to analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness.

Researchers pointed to the 2017 corporate tax cuts in the U.S. for helping billionaires keep more of their earnings.

“For billionaires, this is a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose economy, boosted by [White House] policies to funnel wealth to the top,” an Institute for Policy Studies researcher said.