‘It’s extremely disappointing’: Elections officials brace for long vote count as talks on reform crater in Harrisburg

(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

*This story was updated on 10/20/20 to reflect that a bill amending the election code got approval in the House but awaits a final vote in the Senate. 

Pennsylvania voters likely will have to wait days to learn the outcome of races in the Nov. 3 general election, as Republicans who control the state House said Monday that they have no intention of changing state law to give counties a head start in processing mail-in ballots. 

The announcement from House Republicans follows months of negotiations with the Democratic Wolf administration, which has urged the Legislature since the spring to tweak the state election code to help counties promptly count a crush of mail-in ballots. 

Pennsylvania is one of just four states nationwide that begins processing – or “pre-canvassing” – those ballots on Election Day.

County election officials hoped lawmakers would change that with an 11th-hour vote this week, their last scheduled session week in Harrisburg before Nov. 3. 

But a House Republican spokesman Monday said that his caucus reached an impasse with Gov. Tom Wolf. 

*The spokesman, Jason Gottesman, said Wolf could resolve the problem by signing a bill, passed by the House in a near-party-line vote in September, that gives counties three additional days to pre-canvass ballots, but also gives voters less time to request them. The bill mirrors a proposal Senate Republicans introduced this summer and needs one more vote from the upper chamber before lawmakers can send it to Wolf. 

Gottesman said the legislation would improve the security and safety of Pennsylvania’s elections, since it also creates restrictions for ballot drop boxes and satellite voting sites.

But Wolf has been adamant that he would not approve any legislation that restricts access to mail-in ballots. Under current law, voters have until Oct. 27 to apply for mail-in ballots; as currently written, the House bill would impose a deadline of Oct. 19. 

Wolf’s spokeswoman said Monday that the Democratic governor had proposed a compromise to assuage Republican concerns about ballot drop boxes, offering provisions that codified security guidelines for drop boxes in exchange for a pre-canvassing extension.

Gottesman disputed that, saying “there was no compromise offered.”

“Given that the Governor has not put anything on the table that can get through our caucus and has once again removed himself from the process of discussing the issue, we have no plans at this time to consider changes to the Election Code that will affect the upcoming election,” Gottesman said in his statement to reporters Monday.

At an unrelated press conference on Monday afternoon, Wolf said he’d found areas of agreement during his talks with Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

But asked about the House GOP statement declaring talks dead, he said “I take them at their word.”

The news that lawmakers would not change the election code came as a blow to the state’s local election officials, who oversee election administration and vote tabulation in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Jeff Greenburg, a former Mercer County. election director who now works for the National Vote at Home Institute. “I feel that the moment was just too big for our state government. It couldn’t approve something as simple as an administrative decision.”

Greenburg said county officials would still count votes accurately, and as quickly as possible. 

But he said the pre-canvassing extension would have allayed fears among voters, who are accustomed to speedy returns on election night. 

He also pointed out that the change would protect public health. During the June 2 primary election, Greenburg said he had as many as 20 people at one time working to process ballots in the Mercer County election office. 

State public health guidelines recommend against gathering indoors, particularly as the state sees a troubling surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Greenburg said that giving counties more time to process ballots would allow them to space out county workers who process ballots and the campaign representatives who are legally entitled to watch them. 

“If a county has to process tens of thousands of ballots starting on election day, that requires a small army of staff,” Greenburg said. “If we were able to spread them out over a week, it would really help the officials who are packed into tight spaces trying to do this.”

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said county officials remain hopeful that lawmakers might change their minds and hold a vote on the election code before they leave Harrisburg on Wednesday. 

If they don’t, Schaefer said, “we will work with the ability we have to start pre-canvassing ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, and ask for the patience of candidates, the public and the media as it will be unlikely we will have results on election night.”

The prospect of a drawn-out vote count has activated fears among voters and election security experts during a particularly litigious election cycle. Some experts have speculated that it could invite a fresh crop of lawsuits after election day. 

Michael Dimino, a professor of constitutional and election law at Widener Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, said that a days-long vote count is not in and of itself grounds to dispute an election result. 

But the longer the results of an election remain disputed, he said, the more time candidates and parties have to scrutinize election administration and find new avenues for litigation.

“A lot of things have to go right for an election to be perfect,” Domino said. “When you have an election that is expected to be close, any imperfection can be catastrophic.”