Fixing one problem with Pa.’s elections could bolster public confidence, Democrats say

‘There’s a lot of things that need to be corrected … To say one thing is going to be a silver bullet … is just not true,’ a House Republican spokesperson said

By: - September 15, 2022 6:30 am

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks during a news conference Wednesday where House Democrats called on Republican leaders to call a vote on a bill to give county election officials more time to prepare to count mail-in ballots (Capital-Star file).

As Pennsylvania heads toward an election the nation will be watching, state lawmakers have proposed dozens of changes to the state Election Code aimed at improving ballot access, security, and modernizing the process. 

Logo for Democracy Day storyAmong those bills, Democratic state representatives said Wednesday, is one that would fix a legislative oversight leading to delays in counting mail-in ballots that has been exploited by election deniers to cast doubt about the integrity of Pennsylvania’s elections. 

Democratic lawmakers say there’s time to take action to fix the problem before the Nov. 8 election where voters will, among other offices, choose Pennsylvania’s next governor and U.S. senator, and doing that would bolster public confidence in the outcome. Republican lawmakers, however, have paired the legislative fix with provisions Democrats say would reduce voter access.

“It’s time to have smoother and more timely election results,” House Democratic Policy Committee Chairperson Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, said during a Wednesday news conference. “And it’s time for Pennsylvania to avoid being the subject of national news because of the unwillingness of the Republican leadership in the General Assembly to do the right thing.”

The problems with counting mail-in ballots are only one set of concerns about elections in Pennsylvania, where voting has been transformed by the ability of voters to vote by mail without an excuse. 

In addition to concerns about election integrity, uncertainty remains about what’s required for a mail-in ballot to be counted and whether ballot drop boxes are secure or even allowed under the law, House State Government Committee Chairperson Seth Grove, R-York, said Wednesday, as the GOP-led panel held a hearing on election administration.

While there is generally bipartisan support for some of the measures, each caucus is taking a different approach. 

Republican lawmakers this session have taken a comprehensive approach to election reform, passing an omnibus bill in 2021 to rewrite Pennsylvania’s election code with tighter deadlines, stricter voter verification requirements, and more controls on how voters return ballots.

After Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill in June 2021 citing opposition to its voter identification requirements, Grove, whose panel has oversight of election legislation, reintroduced the bill last fall.

Grove said last month he is doubtful the General Assembly will pass any election reform before the election.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be corrected and fixed with our election system. To say one thing is going to be a silver bullet and solve all of our election problems is just not true,” Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star. 

When lawmakers passed Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail law, Act 77, in 2019, they failed to anticipate the burden it would place on county boards of elections to process and count tens of thousands of paper ballots, Bizzarro said.

The law permits county election offices to begin the time-consuming process of opening the envelopes in which mail-in ballots are returned only after polls open on Election Day. The result in each election since mail-in voting was first used in 2020 has been – to varying degrees – delays in reporting vote totals.

In the 2020 presidential election, problems with the postal service returning ballots by the deadline, combined with the massive popularity of mail-in voting during the pandemic, left some counties tallying ballots for days after the election. Former President Donald Trump seized on the delays to cast doubt on the results and used them as fodder for baseless claims of election fraud. 

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, said Wednesday that “snake oil salesmen” who call themselves legislators continue to exploit misinformation about voting systems, voter rolls and election procedures. He called on House Republican leaders to bring up for a vote a bill that would give counties more time to prepare mail-in ballots for county, but said he doubts it will happen.

“So all those folks who voted early don’t have their votes counted late,” Conklin, the State Government Committee’s ranking Democrat, said “But that bill will not run. Why won’t it run? Because if it runs and takes away the conspiracy theories.”

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, cautioned against giving voters the idea that election reform legislation is the result of any proven instances of fraud.

“But I think we need to be very, very careful, even as we strengthen security around our election, to not infer that our elections currently are not safe. I think that they think that they are if we can do something even better … sign me up for that,” Kenyatta said.

House Democrats have a slate of more than two-dozen election reform bills pending that are based on information received in a House Democratic Policy Committee meeting, from legislation that addresses a broad range of issues raised by county election officials including mail-in voting and voter access, to ensuring democratic elections and campaign finance reforms. 

Rep. Manny Guzman, D-Berks, spoke about electoral dysfunction  in Berks County, where officials defied a federal court order that mail-in ballots returned without dated return envelopes must be counted and where county officials mailed Spanish-speaking voters information with the wrong date for election day.

“We can continue to, you know, blame incompetence at the top … or we can get to work to do the people’s work that we’re all elected here to do. I know all Democrats are ready to get to work. And we’re asking our Republican colleagues to join us in that effort,” Guzman said.

Gottesman said the Republican Caucus has never believed in a piecemeal approach to election reform. Its omnibus bills were crafted after a dozen hearings on election procedures in other states and concerns brought forward by county officials. 

“We’ve always believed that taking that larger approach to our election system and changes, it’s the best way to go,” Gottesman said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.