‘Anything but certain’: County election chiefs warn lawmakers of potential hurdles in 2020 election reform

Members of the Senate Majority Policy Committee. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

With just three months to go until Pennsylvanians cast ballots in April’s primary elections, the question of who will prevail in the hotly contested Democratic presidential race isn’t the only uncertainty ahead.

County officials, who administer state, local and national elections for Pennsylvania voters, are also wondering what bumps they may encounter as they implement changes to Pennsylvania’s elections code, which took effect this year after lawmakers passed an omnibus election reform package last October.

The election reform bill, which passed the House and Senate by nearly 2-1 margins, allows any Pennsylvanian to vote by mail, extends voter registration deadlines, and eliminates straight-party ticket voting.

The legislation is the most significant update to Pennsylvania’s elections code in decades. But Timothy Benyo, Chief Clerk of the Lehigh County Office of the Election Board, said the reforms make it hard to predict demands for voter services.

“[Elections directors] thrive on detail and make decisions based on past statistics,” Benyo said Monday, when a trio of election officials testified before the Senate Republican Policy Committee at the state Capitol. “The changes in these acts have made our world anything but certain.”

The new voting laws are expected to increase the number of mail-in ballots, as well as the number of last-minute ballot submissions.

Voters now have until 8 p.m. on election day to submit mail-in and absentee ballots to county election offices, as opposed to 5 p.m. on the Friday before an election.

The elimination of straight-ticket voting, meanwhile, may lead to longer wait times at polling places, as voters supporting a party slate cast individual votes for each candidate on their ballot, instead of voting once for a single party.

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Benyo said those variables make it hard for elections directors to plan ahead for some key election-related decisions.

“We don’t know how many ballots we’re going to need to send out, how many ballots are going to be returned, how many voters will show up at the polls,” Benyo said. “These are some of the uncertainties we’re dealing with.”

But as Benyo’s counterparts said, the potential problems don’t end there. 

Forrest Lehman, elections director from Lycoming County, warned Senate Republicans that election offices may be scrambling to finalize voter rolls in the two weeks before an election. A provision in October’s bill, designed to boost voter participation, gives voters until 15 days before an election to register to vote, as opposed to 30 days.

Joe Kantz, chairman of the Snyder County Board of Commissioners, added that counties may be hampered by last-minute submissions of absentee or mail-in ballots, now that voters can submit ballots until polls close on election day.

Kantz said Snyder County purchased a new central tabulation machine to expedite its election night operations. Without it, he said, counting results “could take up to three days past the election.”

In addition to the new voting laws, 22 counties are slated to roll out new voting machines in April’s primary elections, Kantz said.

That could invite problems like the ones voters saw in York in the November 2019 general election, when voters and election administrators grappling with new equipment reported long waits at polling places.

All three county officials said they’re committed to ensuring the integrity of Pennsylvania’s voting systems in a critical election year. But as Lehman said, they also want the state lawmakers who drafted the reforms to understand the great “administrative burden” they create for county governments.

Pennsylvania’s top elections official acknowledged in a separate appearance on Monday that she worried “the volume of changes would overburden county election offices.”

Speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said that much of her department’s focus this year would be on helping counties. She also maintained that the uphill task of implementing the mail-in ballot changes is doable.

“Thirty-plus other states have been doing it for years, if not decades,” Boockvar said.

The Republican lawmakers who attended Monday’s committee session said that open communication between state and local lawmakers will be critical as voters head to the poll this year in Pennsylvania — a state that’s expected to be critical in the 2020 presidential race.

“This is going to require a team effort at all levels,” said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a York County Republican whose district was home to high-profile election snafus in November. “We need to work together and communicate effectively to make sure we avoid any issues in the upcoming presidential election.”

Associate Editor Cassie Miller contributed to this report.