Little has changed for Pennsylvania election officials, voters heading into 2022

The same challenges, such as limited state funding and limited time to process mail-in ballots, remain unresolved

By: - March 18, 2022 2:38 pm

(Capital-Star file)

Even after a year of heated hearings, strong rhetoric, and lawsuits, Pennsylvania’s election laws head into the 2022 campaign cycle fundamentally unchanged from where they were after the 2020 presidential election.

It’s a testament to both the tenor of the national debate over voting rights and Harrisburg’s partisan gridlock. And it leaves county election officials facing the same issues — such as limited state funding and limited time to process mail-in ballots — that they’ve faced since spring of 2020.

And with a big midterm election now looming, which will start off with the May 17 primary election, the lack of change looms large for election officials.

“I’m fine with [lawmakers] going back to their fight,” former Mercer County elections director Jeff Greenburg told the Capital-Star. 

But “to me, the difference is separating those specific issues” — such as time to process mail-in ballots before Election Day or stronger protections for election officials, Greenburg said.

“They are particular to just the administration of elections,” he added. “They are nonpartisan in my mind.”

Counties are caught in between as Wolf, GOP once again try to negotiate election reform

An omnibus bill addressing those issues did pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly in June 2021. 

However, it passed along near-party lines, and the bill included a number of new policies — such as expanded voter ID, restrictions on ballot drop boxes, and mail-in ballot signature verifications — that alarmed Democrats, and would have presented additional burdens for counties. In the end, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill.

Since then, negotiations on further electoral changes have seemingly come to a stop, while legislative Republicans have been wracked by internal wrangling over whether the bill goes far enough.

In particular, some House Republicans have expressed opposition to voting on another election bill if it doesn’t completely eliminate mail-in ballots. 

Many of these same lawmakers have put their name on a lawsuit asking state courts to find the 2019 mail-in ballot law, Act 77, unconstitutional, even though 11 of the 14 plaintiffs voted for the law. In January, the lower Commonwealth Court agreed with their arguments. On appeal, the case is now before the state Supreme Court.

GOP lawmakers celebrate Act 77 ruling, though what’s next is unclear

Oral arguments before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court took place earlier this month, and a final ruling is pending. In the meantime, a high court order on March 1 seems to guarantee that mail-in ballots will remain in place for at least the 2022 primary election, regardless of how the court eventually rules.

With that in mind, counties are forging ahead with printing and sending out mail-in ballots. Jerry Feaser, director of elections in Dauphin County, said his main concern is how redistricting delays will impact the timeline for mail-in ballots.

In 2021, Feaser said the county had sent out mail-in ballots by mid-April for last year’s May 18 primary election.

But despite the Department of State’s warnings that new maps should be finished by late January 2022, the new congressional maps weren’t in place until late February. The state legislative lines were later still; the Supreme Court didn’t approve them until Wednesday.

Under a timeline approved by the high court in its Wednesday ruling, legislative candidates have until March 28 to submit signatures to the Department of State, and qualify for the primary ballot.

Pennsylvania’s new legislative maps OK-ed by state Supreme Court

Then, within five days of the close of petitions, counties must send ballots to military and overseas voters so that those Pennsylvanians have time to receive their ballot, fill it out, and send it back to the county. 

Mail-in ballots for the rest of Dauphin County’s voters likely won’t be printed and sent out until late April or early May, Feaser said. That means voters will have less time to fill out and submit their ballots than last year.

“By the delays, we’re putting an added strain on the whole postal service,” Feaser said.

An added concern is that the ballots could theoretically still change after the April 2 deadline to mail ballots out to overseas and military voters.

The high court gave the lower Commonwealth Court an April 12 deadline to decide on challenges to candidates’ petitions.

As a result, the overseas ballots may have candidates on them who are challenged and removed, Feaser said. Or a candidate’s petition could be rejected, but they could sue, and win reinstatement to the ballot. All of this adds to the confusion, Feaser said.

But at least one thing has been affirmed by the courts. Now, if a voter doesn’t date their mail-in ballot, it will likely not be counted.

This very issue was a sore spot in the 2020 election. In a western Pennsylvania state Senate election, the Republican-controlled chamber refused to seat a Democratic senator whose reelection was secured when Allegheny County tallied such ballots, even when Westmoreland County, also in the district, did not.

At the time, the state Supreme Court and a federal judge upheld the ballots and the election, and the senator was seated. 

The 7-member high court ruled on the issue 3-3-1, with the swing vote, Justice David Wecht, arguing that the ballot could be counted at the time due to widespread confusion about mail-in voting, but should not be counted in the future.

Since then, the court hasn’t revisited the issue. In a similar challenge over undated ballots in a Lehigh County judge race, the state Commonwealth Court ruled that 200 some ballots could not be counted, and the Supreme Court declined to take a second look. 

A federal judge has since backed that decision, but the state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is appealing the lower court’s decision.

Voters have until May 2 to register before the primary. You can register online here.

If you want to vote by mail, you can apply online here. The deadline to apply is May 10. You must return it by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

If you are unsure of your congressional 0r legislative district after redistricting, you can use this tool from Spotlight PA to find out if shifting lines impact you.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.