DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. Election workers around the country are preparing for what could be one of the most chaotic elections in U.S. history. There is the pandemic but also dozens of legal fights over voting rules. And that's left a lot of things up in the air only weeks before Election Day.
NPR's Pam Fessler visited the election office in Lehigh County, Pa., to see how they're dealing with the uncertainty.
MAUREEN LINKHORST: We anticipate receiving the ballots by the end of September, beginning of October. But that's not definite.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Voters here thought they might get ballots as early as this week, but Lehigh election worker Maureen Linkhorst tells one caller there was a delay. Democrats went to court to keep the Green Party off the ballot, a case that wasn't resolved until Thursday.
LINKHORST: All right. Take care. Yep. Bye.
FESSLER: Phones here have been ringing all morning as nervous voters check the status of their registrations and absentee ballot requests. Linkhorst says many are just looking for reassurance in an election already disrupted by disease and controversy.
LINKHORST: Yeah, I think there's a lot of confusion out there. And then they just want to be certain that their applications are in so that they can vote no matter how they want to vote.
FESSLER: And no wonder people are so confused - Pennsylvania's Democratic governor and Republican state legislature have been at odds over when mail-in ballots should be received, how they can be delivered, even when they'll be counted.
ANDREA LERNER: These are stickers. I'm taking the back off and cutting them in half and putting each one on.
FESSLER: Worker Andrea Lerner is busy replacing outdated information on the back of thousands of mail-in ballot envelopes. State law recently changed, so people can now vote in person as long as they have their absentee ballots voided.
A LERNER: So we're putting new language on there so that the voters understand exactly what it is they're supposed to be doing.
FESSLER: Although Election Director Timothy Benyo admits the wording could change again depending on what happens to a bill working its way through the legislature...
TIMOTHY BENYO: Yeah. (Laughter) It's pretty silly.
FESSLER: To be honest, this is the least of his problems. Like most election officials, Benyo has to basically run two elections this November, one in person and another by mail. That means finding and staffing the usual number of polling sites while dealing with an unprecedented number of mail-in votes. He expects about 100,000.
BENYO: It's hard to train the poll workers, too, because we don't know exactly what the rules are and if they are going to change. We're rolling with it (laughter), what we can.
FESSLER: It wasn't even clear until a court ruling Thursday that the county could provide drop boxes where voters can deposit their ballots. Republicans had tried to block their use. Benyo says the county might get the boxes now, if it's not too late to order them. He's already purchased two high-speed envelope openers to speed up the counting of those ballots.
UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: There we go. Oh, that looks like a lot of mail.
UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #2: That is a lot of mail.
UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #3: That is a lot of mail.
FESSLER: Everyday this office is flooded with ballot requests. Today they get four full bins of envelopes, which worker Ira Lerner spreads across two tables and sprays with disinfectant...
(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAYER MISTING)
FESSLER: ...Just to be safe before the sorting begins.
IRA LERNER: Could be voter registration - it could be a mail-in ballot. It could be a correction to a registration, a request for an absentee ballot.
FESSLER: Many of the requests are coming through third-party groups that are encouraging Pennsylvanians to vote by mail. Most are from a Democratic-leaning nonprofit, but there are also some from Republican groups. Despite President Trump's outspoken opposition to mail-in voting, several of the envelopes bear a picture of a stern-looking Trump next to the words, President Trump wants you to return this form.
UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: This was one bin, seriously?
UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #2: That was one bin, seriously.
FESSLER: The problem is that voters have been sending in two, even three requests because they're so confused. Clerks have to check the files to weed out the duplicates.
I LERNER: If they've requested the ballot, they would write dupe on top - D-U-P. The dupes go here.
FESSLER: Good record-keeping here is paramount. Workers constantly check state records and even obituaries so they don't send ballots to someone who has moved or died. Today's mail does bring one pleasant surprise.
A LERNER: Somebody drew us stars - aw.
FESSLER: Andrea Lerner picks up an envelope with three big stars drawn on the outside. Inside is a voter's message.
A LERNER: I will only be voting in person, looking forward to meeting my fellow Americans at the polls on November 3 - heart. I mean, that's so much nicer than the usual angry diatribes that we get.
FESSLER: There have been a few of those and could be more in the weeks ahead. Everyone here hopes things will go well in November, but they know that these are confusing and unprecedented times.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Allentown, Pa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "REVERSING")
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