Centre County election workers process record number of mail-in ballots

Election workers make sure ballots have been removed from envelopes Tuesday at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, which was set up as Centre County’s mail-in voting processing site.

Election workers make sure ballots have been removed from envelopes Tuesday at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, which was set up as Centre County’s mail-in voting processing site.

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For 10 years, Peter Jurs could be found in a polling place as a precinct judge on Election Day. But this year, the 77-year-old State College resident volunteered in a different capacity.

After arriving at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center early Tuesday morning, Jurs worked as an extractor — helping pre-canvass over 31,000 mail-in votes cast in the November general election. He was one of more than 100 people there to help open, extract, scan, document and store the record-breaking number of mail-in ballots.

“Because I’m elderly, I decided not to work at the polling place,” Jurs said, citing risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “So, I volunteered here to be part of this process.”

Of the more than 110,000 registered Centre County voters, over 37,000 applied to vote by mail, according to county data. By Monday, 31,000 ballots had been returned to the elections office, satellite center or deposited into one of the eight secure ballot drop boxes stationed throughout the county.

In the June primary, 32,399 total ballots were cast, including about 19,000 mail-in ballots that took elections officials four days to scan.

“It’s historic,” Jurs said, while leaving the first four-hour shift. “I feel a sense of obligation. I’m happy to participate in the fundamentals of democracy by being involved on Election Day. This is nothing new; it’s just a different aspect.”

This year, 500 new people applied to work on Election Day. In total, Centre County had about 1,000 election workers helping at the polls and in the processing room.

First-time election workers and State College residents Karen Wing and Mary Ellen Fisher were motivated to help after realizing the record-breaking number of mail-in ballots the county was expected to process. Fisher, who said she was roped into volunteering by friends, described the overall process as “fun.”

State College resident and first-time worker John Kenny volunteered as an extractor because he wanted to make sure every vote was counted.

But what stood out most to veteran election worker and State College resident Heidi Kruesi was the number of people who offered to participate in the process.

“I was concerned because I knew they would have a lot of ballots, and I wanted to do my part to help,” Kruesi said. “But, I think it’s amazing what can happen when the community comes together to do their part.”

Though training was conducted online, workers said they felt prepared for their roles heading into Election Day.

After participating in a series of training sessions and asking follow-up questions in the weeks leading up to the election, first-time election worker Jan Koch said she knew what to expect, but the magnitude of the work didn’t hit her until Tuesday morning. Koch worked at the registration table and helped monitor who was entering and exiting the processing room.

“We had the initial training via Zoom, and Zoom is not always the perfect option, but it is the only option we have these days,” Koch said. “But until you get here and you sit at your desk, you really don’t have the complete experience.”

Workers said they knew they were signing up for a challenge, but the real “unsung hero” was Commissioner Michael Pipe, they said. Pipe, who led election trainings and oversaw the Election Day processing room, was the one answering workers’ follow-up questions, explaining what their individual roles were, while stressing the importance of being thorough.

Weeks before the election, Pipe expressed confidence in poll workers, county elections staff and their ability to process ballots in a timely yet thorough manner. On Tuesday, he spent hours helping workers process ballots, answering volunteer questions and making sure things were running smoothly.

By 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, 9,000 mail-in ballots had been processed by workers.

“Thank you for working out some of the bumps, the kinks in the process,” Pipe told volunteers Tuesday morning. “We are at a really good spot.”

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, workers were running hours ahead of schedule. With the majority of mail-in ballots processed, the first round of unofficial results were expected to be tabulated by the county elections office by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The Penn Stater is reserved through Wednesday so workers can finish counting any remaining ballots.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.

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