(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
By Jeff Greenburg
We are heading into a second presidential election cycle since the enactment of Act 77, the no-excuse mail voting law, and very basic election issues remain unaddressed by the General Assembly. That is unconscionable.
Four relatively easy fixes would benefit all county election officials and thousands of voters in our Commonwealth.
Mail-in ballot pre-processing
Forcing counties to wait until 7 a.m. on Election Day to begin this process, as the current law does, creates significant financial, resource and logistical hardships for many counties. It also means we all have to wait longer for election results. Those same counties and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania have been asking for more time to pre-process mail ballots since the 2020 primary. This would include examining the ballot return envelope, removing the ballots and scanning the ballots through a scanner. Tabulation of votes from those ballots or reporting those results wouldn’t be allowed until the polls closed at 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Mitigating mail-in ballot rejections
Voters have always made mistakes on their ballot return envelopes such as omitting a date or providing an incorrect date, such as a birthday; there have also been voters who neglected to enclose their ballot in an inner “secrecy” envelope, which used to be important when ballots were counted at polling places. But these technical issues don’t impact the security or integrity of the ballot. Nevertheless, we’re now setting aside thousands of ballots every election — nearly 16,000 in the 2022 midterms — that have these immaterial errors. Handwriting a date on the return envelope or using a secrecy envelope should not be grounds to reject someone’s votes.
Mail-in ballot application deadline
Another disenfranchisement risk stems from the mail ballot application deadline, which is only seven days before the 8 p.m. Election Day deadline for return. With USPS delivery times that can sometimes run 3-5 days, thousands of voters who apply just before the deadline are never going to be able to complete the process that includes the voter mailing the application, the county mailing a ballot and the voter then mailing the completed ballot back. Why are we setting them up for failure with such a tight timeline? Shifting the mail-in ballot request deadline back just a few days would allow more time for voters to apply for and return a ballot while also enabling counties to meet the crushing demand that normally occurs at the application deadline.
Enhanced post-election audits
Pennsylvania law requires counties to conduct a statistical audit of 2 percent of the ballots cast, or 2,000 ballots, whichever is less. But that audit is the same size regardless of whether a race is decided by one vote or 1,000 votes, meaning the statistical power of the audit is limited when the race is close. As a rule, the tighter the margin of victory, the larger number of ballots should be audited. A better option is a risk-limiting audit (RLA), which has become the gold standard in other states. Pennsylvania counties are already utilizing this process, but it’s not yet in statute.
Our county election officials are already making plans for the 2024 presidential election cycle, but it’s not too late to better position them to do their jobs and make these long-requested fixes to election law. As a former election official, I care deeply about our elections in the Commonwealth continuing to be free, fair, safe and secure. These nonpartisan reforms are supported on both sides of the aisle, but they’re also sought by our county officials charged with running elections. They’ve been working overtime for years now. Let’s help them do their jobs, and create better elections for all Pennsylvanians.
Jeff Greenburg administered 28 elections in Pennsylvania while serving as the director of elections in Mercer County from 2007-2020. He is now a Senior Advisor for Election Administration for the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan advocate for better government in Pennsylvania.
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