With deadline looming, will Pa. lawmakers pass badly needed election fixes in time?

(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Pennsylvania state lawmakers will be back in Harrisburg for three days starting on Monday, their first return to the Capitol since a lawmaker’s COVID-19 diagnosis cut short session schedules for the House and Senate earlier this month.

The actions they take could determine how quickly Americans know the outcome of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Republicans who control the House and Senate have not yet said if they will use their final three scheduled session days of the month to vote on a measure long sought by county election officials and the Democratic Wolf administration: a bill that tweaks Pennsylvania’s election code to give counties more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting ahead of election day.

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states nationwide that does not allow election officials to start this process – known as pre-canvassing – ahead of an election. Under state law, they can’t open mail-in ballot envelopes until 7 a.m on the day polls open.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Wednesday that the state’s 67 county election offices have been hiring new staff and purchasing state-of-the art election equipment to ensure a quick and accurate count of mail-in ballots, which may exceed 3 million by election day.  

But even with counties working around the clock in the 20 days remaining before the election, Boockvar is not optimistic that the outcome of the presidential race – let alone hundreds of contests for legislative seats and state row offices – will be known on election night. 

“[Counties] are in a very strong position to get this done,” Boockvar said. “But can they get it done by midnight on election night? No, they absolutely can’t.”

More than 2.6 million Pennsylvanians have been approved to vote by mail this year, Boockvar said Wednesday. County election offices have already sent 97 percent of those ballots to voters. 

Tens of thousands of voters have, in turn, returned their ballots to counties, either through the mail, or at a satellite election office or ballot drop box. 

Want to hand-deliver your ballot in Pa.? Here’s a map of election offices and drop boxes.

Boockvar said last week that counties are prepared to begin opening ballots early, and will adjust their plans on short notice if lawmakers approve a new pre-canvassing deadline this month.

But she expressed frustration on Wednesday that lawmakers have not advanced a measure that she says has the support of all 67 county election officials in the state. 

“How often do you have a circumstance where the solution, which is a legislative one, costs nothing, solves the problem, and has no negative side effects?” Boockvar said. “This is the most straightforward, easy, no brainer solution to this problem.”

Nationwide, 22 states permit election officials to prepare ballots for counting as soon as they receive them, and 25 states allow processing at some point before Election Day, according to data compiled by the New York Times

Pennsylvania is one of just four states – and one of two battleground states, along with Wisconsin – that begins opening mailed ballots on Election Day. 

Republican legislators have not raised concerns that a longer pre-canvassing period would invite opportunities for fraud or create inaccuracies in Pennsylvania’s vote count. 

Instead, they have made the change contingent on other election-related reforms.

Republican lawmakers offered bills this summer that gave counties an additional three days before the election. Wolf pledged to veto the legislation because it also cut short the timeframe for voters to request mail-in ballots, and limited the use of secure drop boxes where voters can hand-deliver ballots. 

House leaders reportedly convened closed-door talks last week to discuss a bill that would extend pre-canvassing window and create new security requirements for ballot drop boxes, the Associated Press reported.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star Wednesday that the bill “continues to reflect the consensus of the House Republican Caucus,” and did not say whether the lower chamber would advance a bill targeted at the pre-canvassing deadline.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said conversations about the pre-canvassing deadline are ongoing, but also stopped short of pledging that legislation would come up for a vote next week. 

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this report.