Burnt out and beleaguered, county elections officials ask lawmakers for help ahead of this year’s election season

An election worker during mail-in ballot counting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2020 (ChrisMcGrath/Getty Images/The Conversation)

They may be easy to miss when federal candidates aren’t campaigning, but elections happen at least twice a year in Pennsylvania – and the people who run them are gearing up for their next race in May while still recovering from a dizzying 2020.

County election officials from across Pennsylvania told lawmakers on Tuesday that they’re burnt out and beleaguered after rolling out a new vote-by-mail program during the contentious 2020 race. 

The local officials said they felt defeated by vagaries and tight deadlines in the law the General Assembly passed in 2019, which they spent much of the last year asking lawmakers to amend

Now, with barely two months to go until the May primary race, they’re preparing to hold another election under conditions that they say are less than ideal.

“The stress level in our profession is at a breaking point,” Lawrence County Election Director Ed Allison said Tuesday, when he testified alongside four other county election officials at a hearing held by the Senate Election Integrity Commission. Senate Republican leaders convened the committee this year to study election policies and recommend changes to Pennsylvania’s election code. 

Nearly two dozen election directors departed their jobs in 2020, when the new vote-by-mail law required them to complete new administrative tasks under deadlines that left little room for error.   

The seismic change to Pennsylvania’s election system became more difficult when COVID-19 hit last March, and the state promoted mail-in ballots as a safe alternative to in-person voting. County election bureaus had to mail out more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots in the May 2020 primary and 3 million in November’s General Election. 

Map: How Pa. counties plan to count 3.1 million mail-in ballots

They said the punishing workload was made all the more difficult by changing directives from the Department of State and state Supreme Court, as well as partisan attacks on the integrity of the state’s election system itself.  

“I often felt overwhelmed, distressed, and cast like a failure at times,” Wayne County Election Director Cindy Furman said. “The [mail-in voting] process from beginning to end, is convoluted and time consuming for the voters and our office.”

The task county officials are facing this spring will undoubtedly be lighter. Municipal primary races typically have lower turnout than those that fall in even-numbered years, when voters cast ballots for gubernatorial, congressional or presidential races. 

But some officials expect that turnout could increase now that all voters are eligible to vote by mail. More than 400,000 voters across Pennsylvania already have requested mail-in ballots for the May 18 primary, according to Department of State data shared with the Capital-Star Tuesday. 

Election bureaus also are right-sizing their operations to accommodate the new requirements of the vote-by-mail law, said to Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. The law let voters elect to receive annual mail-in ballot application notifications, which counties had to ship out for the first time this spring. 

‘A give and take’

County election officials have said for months that two tweaks to state law would make their offices run more smoothly, and increase the chances that voters and candidates will see election results on Election Day. 

They want more time ahead of election day to prepare mail-in ballots for counting – a process known as pre-canvassing. They also want to advance the deadline for voters to request mail-in ballots from county election offices. 

State law currently allows voters to request mail-in ballots up to one week before an Election Day. Officials say that their offices had to work round-the-clock last year as they tried to meet the deadline.

County officials didn’t expect to see Act 77 tweaks ahead of the May primary, Schaefer said. 

But they do believe that lawmakers need to act by the summer if they want to change the law before voters return for the General Election in November.

“If we make changes for November, we need to start getting words on paper and move a bill to the governor,” Schaefer said Tuesday. “We’re ready to start moving the process forward.”

But lawmakers and political parties have their own priorities. And legislative leaders haven’t committed to advancing a fix before the fall. 

Leaders in the House and Senate have said that they want to hear from experts before making changes to state law. Committees dedicated to election issues have hearings on election administration scheduled throughout the end of April. 

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the House Republicans, told the Capital-Star Tuesday that his caucus is “more interested in getting changes right rather than doing them along any sort of deadline.”

Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, one of four Senate Democrats on the Election Committee, said most lawmakers support a pre-canvassing expansion. But she expects there may be disagreement when it comes to ballot drop boxes, or to rules allowing voters to fix clerical errors they make when casting a mail-in ballots.   

Boscola sponsored the legislation that became the omnibus vote-by-mail bill in 2019. She said the next change to the Election Code will probably take a similar form: an amalgamation of proposals from both sides of the aisle, negotiated by legislative leaders until they have something that’s palatable to the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. 

“It’s going to be a give and take,” Boscola said. “That is what it is.”

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