MERCER — Completion Thursday of Mercer County’s mail-in ballot count sealed victories for state Rep. Timothy Bonner and Wheatland’s home rule charter.
After tallying 12,598 votes at the polls on Election Day, Mercer County added 7,874 ballots cast by mail. More than one-third of the county’s votes were cast by mail.
“This is an all-time record,” said Jeff Greenburg, director of Mercer County voter registration and election bureau.
Processing the mail-in ballots is a time-consuming process. The county election bureau receives ballots in double envelopes, a security envelope within a mailing envelope. The mailing envelope has identifying information about the voter, so the security envelopes are necessary to protect the voters’ privacy.
The security envelopes are run through a letter opener and the poll workers then carefully remove the ballot from the envelope and flatten it so it can run through the scanner.
The job of counting mail-in ballots was about 10 times bigger than it had been in most previous elections. In recent years, the bureau had averaged about 750 absentee ballots.
But a change in state law this year allowed voters to request a mail-in ballot for any reason, or no reason at all. Previously, voters could not get an absentee ballot unless they asserted they would be unable — due either to physical limitations or because they would be away from their voting precinct on Election Day — to cast a ballot in person.
Greenburg said the COVID-19 pandemic also played a role in the surge of mail-in voting. Voters received their ballots by mail and could return them either in person or through the mail.
With the thousands of mail-in ballots, Mercer County purchased two high-speed digital scanners, which are made by Election Systems and Software (ES&S), based in Omaha, Neb. The company also manufactures ballot marking devices and scanners that tally Mercer County’s paper ballots at all 90 voting precincts.
Terry Craddock, who works for ES&S, was on hand to help make sure everything was running smoothly.
If a ballot doesn’t make it through the scanner, it has to be removed and set aside for a closer look, Greenburg said.
The ones that get rejected typically have a small tear, or a timing mark that needs to be filled in.
“These are very delicate,” he said.
If a ballot cannot be scanned, poll workers fill out a brand new ballot, copying the voters’ selections from the original form.
Greenburg said the county had to discard 402 mail-in ballots due to non-compliance with election rules — 387 ballots did not have a security envelope inside the mailing envelope, 14 security envelopes had identifying marks on them and one ballot had an identifying mark.
Returns on the mail-in ballots were 4,964 from Democrats and 2,910 from Republicans. The Election Day in-person turnout totaled 8,221 Republicans, 4,375 Democrats and two non-partisan voters on the Wheatland home rule referendum, with totals of 11,131 Republicans and 9,339 Democrats.
Returns so far indicate a resounding victory for Bonner in the Republican primary for the state 8th District legislative race. The 8th District includes eastern Mercer County and northwestern Butler County.
The unofficial results, pending ratification by election boards in both counties, had Bonner, who was elected to the state House in a special election March 17, with 7,504 votes (86.37 percent) against 1,133 for Grove City Councilman Scott Jaillet.
Bonner will face Phil Heasley, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, in the November general election.
Election night results had the Wheatland home rule charter with 40 votes in favor and 28 against. The mail-in ballot closed that gap, but the charter appears to have prevailed in a vote of 57 to 21.
The county still has to count write-in votes and “hundreds” of provisional votes, a process which will begin today.
Greenburg said the write-in ballot could yield a winner in the District 7 state House election. State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, was unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and no Republican was on the ballot.
But more than 800 Republican write-in votes were cast in the District 7 race. If at least 300 of them are for the same candidate, that person could win the nomination.
Unofficial results appear to have Michael Lamb of Allegheny County in front for state auditor general, the only other contested race on Mercer County’s ballots. With more than 97 percent of the statewide ballots counted, Lamb had 318,915 votes, well ahead of Nina Ahmad of Philadelphia County, with 261,007.
The new scanning machines make the process secure and fast, said Greenburg, the county election director since January 2007. He said he wishes he had been able to use the digital scanners before.
“This is great,” he said.
The new scanners are able to handle large numbers of ballots at a time. In previous years, each ballot had to fed into the machine one at a time.
Information about the number of absentee and mail-in ballots received will be posted on the county’s website followed a few days later by the number of provisional ballots, then write-in winners.
The first signing of election books is June 16. The election board is expected to ratify the election on June 22.
Jeff Greenburg, director of Mercer County Bureau of Voter Registration and Election, encourages voters interested in getting mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election to file an application as soon as they’re available in August.
The state online site requires that voters present a Pennsylvania driver’s license number or photo identification number, or the last four digits of the voter’s social security number.
Applicants who don’t have any of that information will be asked to confirm they are eligible to vote, he said.
Voters who signed up for permanent mail-in ballots don’t have to fill out another application. Those wishing to change from permanent mail-in ballots to in-person voting can fill out a form on the county’s website or visit the elections office.
For more information, call the Mercer County election office at 724-662-7542 or visit www.mcc.co.mercer.pa.us