(TNS) — Big changes to the way Pennsylvania has conducted elections and counted ballots for many decades are underway in county election offices throughout the commonwealth.

Those changes are the result of a historic election reform bill signed into law last fall that was designed by state lawmakers to increase access to the ballot box.

The new law, in effect now for the primary on April 28, allows registered voters to cast ballots from the convenience of their home in every election without having to provide an excuse as to why they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day; allows people to register to vote as late as 15 days before an election; and allows voters to submit their mail-in or absentee ballot until the day of the election.

Supporters say the changes will improve voter turnout across the state.

'No Margin For Error'

Berks County Elections Director Deborah M. Olivieri is one of those people.

But, she warned, those changes are also creating challenges for those on the front lines of what is sure to be a very dramatic presidential election cycle.

“I really wish when legislation like this is being discussed that these legislators would talk to the county election directors to find out what the implications are going to be,” she said.

Olivieri, who oversees a staff of 11, pointed out that the state lawmakers who championed the changes failed to provide counties with the extra money she needs to implement the new rules.

That includes hiring additional people to process voter registrations — a turnaround time that has been cut in half by the new law. And more people to handle the higher number of mailed paper ballots expected now that anyone can apply for that option.

“These changes create a great hardship on the department, especially during a presidential election cycle,” she said. “We’re going to be struggling to keep up.”

County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, who serves as chairman of the county election board, said that while he believes the reforms are a step toward making voting more accessible he wishes the state had rolled out the changes over the next several years.

“This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on our election officials,” he said. “Everything all at one time is very overwhelming.”

Olivieri said she’s anticipating the county will receive about 25% of its ballots from those who mail them to the office. That would mean about 70,000 ballots.

“I’m preparing for the worst,” she said.

And — depending on the number of ballots they get and how close the races are — Olivieri acknowledged that it may take a few days before winners can be announced.

Barnhardt said the board is still investigating whether the county will have to hire additional workers to help get the job done or if they can find workers from other departments who can lend a hand.

“There’s no margin for error, so we’re going to do what we have to do,” he said.

Permanent Absentee Ballot List

Before: Voters could qualify for an absentee ballot only if one the following would keep them from the polls for a primary or general election: an illness or physical disability, duties related to elections or the celebration of a religious holiday.

Now: Those rules are still in place. But voters will now be able to request absentee ballots for all primary, general and special elections held in a given year, creating a permanent list.

No-Excuse Mail-in Voting

Before: There were no alternatives for voters who failed to meet the requirement for an absentee ballot but found it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day.

Now: The law created a new option to vote by mail without providing an excuse. And voters will be able to request mail-in ballots for all primary, general and special elections held in a given year, creating a permanent list. Pennsylvania joins 31 other states with mail-in voting that removes barriers to voting this way.

Extended Mail-in And Absentee Submission Deadlines

Before: Pennsylvania had the distinction of having the earliest deadline in the country for voters to submit absentee ballots, requiring them to arrive by the Friday before an election to be counted.

Now: Voters can submit mail-in and absentee ballots until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

15 More Days To Register

Before: Pennsylvanians had to register to vote by 30 days before an election.

Now: The deadline to register to vote is 15 days before an election. The more flexible deadline provides more time to register to vote than 24 other states.

Mail-in Ballots

Olivieri said more information about these changes, along with applications for mail-in or absentee ballots, can be found on the homepage of the election services website. There is, however, an important rule to keep in mind if voters do decide to go this route.

If voters request one of these two ballots, they won’t be able to change who they voted for or change their minds about heading to the polls.

If such a voter shows up to their polling location on Election Day, Olivieri said they will be instructed to fill out a provisional ballot.

“People will need to pay attention to the rules if they choose to go this way,” she warned.

Olivieri said her staff will be working the day after the election to ensure that no voter cast two ballots. The mailed in ballots will be checked against the provisional ballots and if there are any duplicates, the mailed in ballot will be the one counted by officials.

Barnhardt said there are a lot of unknowns heading into this process, but he believes Olivieri and her team will rise to the challenge.

He just wants to make sure voters keep that in mind as they work through these big changes.

“Making sure our elections go smoothly is critical to our democracy,” he said. “There is a huge responsibility there for us. And I hope the voters will appreciate that.”

©2020 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.