Pennsylvania voters told to quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposure are entitled to vote and can request and return an emergency absentee ballot through 8 p.m. on Election Day. A viral Facebook post misleadingly suggests they are being disenfranchised.
A viral claim pushed on Facebook the day before the 2020 election misleadingly suggests that voters in Pennsylvania are being prevented from voting by the state Department of Health and threatened with arrest if they do.
Spread by a popular conservative radio host in western Pennsylvania, the Facebook post asserts that “[a]fter a reported ‘uptick’ in Covid positive cases, thousands of Pennsylvania voters in York, Lebanon, and Dauphin counties have been receiving letters from the state health department demanding that they quarantine for 14 days.”
“The letter states that they’ve been exposed to Covid-19 (no proof given) and, as such, must remain quarantined and not vote in person on election day,” the post continues. “If they fail to obey the order, they face possible arrest.”
It asks whether Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s “administration is attempting to silence voters — hours before the most important election in American history?”
The post is misleading for a few reasons:
- The letters are not a new form of communication in response to recently rising COVID-19 cases in the state; the state has been using the letters for months — and not only in those counties. The letters make no mention of the election.
- If someone in the state had planned to vote in person and is now under quarantine, they can still request and return an emergency absentee ballot until 8 p.m. on Election Day. That option is included on the state’s website regarding voting.
- A state Department of Health spokeswoman said those who receive such letters are first contacted by case managers (if they’ve tested positive) or contact tracers (if they’ve been in contact with someone who is positive), who were instructed to provide information about voting options.
- State health officials do not provide the names of those ordered to quarantine to state or local election officials, so no one would be stopped from casting a ballot in person.
Radio host Wendy Bell, who published the claim on Facebook, attributed the information in a subsequent live-stream video to a writer named Todd Bartley, whose story on a website called talkwilliamsport.com told of a “possible DOH voter suppression effort in Pennsylvania.”
That story focused on the purported script used by contact tracers in the state and included a copy of the state’s quarantine letter instructing individuals who had close contact with someone with COVID-19 to quarantine. It makes no mention of the election or voting, as we said.
While the story suggests the letter included was “obtained” and revelatory, the same exact copy — dated July and featuring the same redactions and highlighted section — was published by another reporter in August.
The letter instructs those who have been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days. Near the end of the letter, the state Department of Health says: “If you do not cooperate with this directive, the Secretary of Health may petition a court to have you confined to an appropriate place chosen by the Department to make certain that you are not able to infect the public, and to make certain that you receive proper care.”
It continues by saying that “[l]aw enforcement may be called upon, to the extent necessary, to ensure your compliance with this directive.”
April Hutcheson, a health department spokeswoman, told us in a phone interview that the “quarantine letters have not changed since we started issuing them” at the start of the pandemic and “states what our authority is under the law.” They don’t make any references to voting or the election.
“We have not used that authority since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “There has been no one prosecuted in Pennsylvania [for violating quarantine]. If you’ve been contacted and been asked to quarantine, folks do the right thing and quarantine.”
Moreover, she said, no one receives the quarantine letter without first being contacted by a case manager or contact tracers, who were instructed to advise positive COVID-19 patients and close contacts on their voting options — including the option to contact their county elections officials to apply for an emergency absentee ballot, she said.
The website of the Department of State, which oversees the election process, says: “In emergency situations (such as an unexpected illness or disability and last-minute absence) … you can request an Emergency Absentee Ballot.” The ballot needs to be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
“Every Pennsylvanian who is registered to vote will have the opportunity to do so,” Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in the press release, which was published following the viral claim’s spread. “There’s an emergency ballot provision under the law. If you can’t deliver your own balloting materials you can assign a designee to do that for you. And if you can’t find a designee, the law actually requires the county election office to have a Sheriff’s Deputy or some county official to deliver the balloting materials for the voter.”
Hutcheson also said the state would not prevent voters from casting a ballot in person — or arrest them, for that matter — if they showed up to do so despite quarantine directives. Health officials do not provide state and local elections officials with records that would enable them to identify people directed to quarantine, she said.
“If you were to show up at a polling place, no one would be able to stop you,” she said. “It is your right to go vote, but we would prefer if you tested positive … that you would get an absentee ballot.”
She likened voting to other essential tasks, such as leaving home to get groceries.
The state has reported more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 9,000 deaths during the pandemic.
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Hutcheson, April. Spokeswoman, Pennsylvania Department of Health. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 2 Nov 2020.
Carlson, Cody. “How to Vote in Pa. if You’re Diagnosed With COVID-19 Before Election Day.” Erie News Now. 28 Oct 2020.
Caruso, Stephen (@StephenJ_Caruso). “You might have seen this Dept. Of Health letter floating around social media. Per a spokesperson, this letter is authentic.” Twitter. 6 Aug 2020.
“COVID-19 Data for Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania Department of Health. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
“Pennsylvania Application for Emergency Absentee Ballot.” VotesPA.com. August 2020.
“PA Voters In Quarantine Due To A COVID-19 Exposure Should Contact Their County Elections Office To Make Arrangements To Vote.” Press release, PA.gov. 2 Nov 2020.