Pa. County Commissioners say they want lawmakers to finish key pieces of election reform before summer recess

By: - June 1, 2021 3:26 pm

Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess, who chairs the Elections Reform Committee of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, 6/1/21 (Screen Capture).

(*This story was updated at 4:09 p.m. on Tuesday, 6/1/21 with comment from House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman and David Thornburgh, executive director of the Committee of Seventy)

Pennsylvania’s county commissioners reiterated an urgent call for help to state lawmakers on Tuesday, pleading with them to pass a pair of key reform measures before they head home for summer break, warning that a failure to act would further snarl results and frustrate voters.

“We’re disappointed in this lack of help for our counties and voters,” Kevin Boozel, the Butler County commissioner who serves as president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said during a call with journalists. “… Counties have heard our state and legislative partners say they want to work with counties and give counties a voice. Nothing would show the sincerity of that sentiment more than to hear what we’ve been saying.”

County commissioners have spent months asking lawmakers for two things: More time to process mail-in ballots and for an extension of the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot.

Right now, that pre-canvassing, as it’s known, can’t start until after the polls close. Counties want to start processing, but not counting ballots, before the polls open at 7 a.m. And they want the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot pushed back to 15 days from Election Day, down from the current seven days.

When counties can only process mail-in ballots on Election Day, we are essentially forced to run two, separate elections,” Sherene Hess, the Indiana County commissioner who chairs the commissioners association’s Elections Reform Committee, said, adding that by extending the application deadline, “we can better do our part to set up our voters for success.”

But whether Republicans who control the General Assembly can — or are willing — to sever those two proposals from a broader and fiery debate over election reform (as the county officials would prefer) is another matter entirely.

Of the eight million registered voters in Pennsylvania, 820,757 applied to vote by mail in the May 18 election. More than 605,000 mail-in ballots were returned, the Capital-Star previously reported, citing data compiled by the Department of State.

GOP lawmakers are eyeing any number of proposed fixes, from suspending mail-in balloting until 2023 and eliminating it entirely to a renewed push for a Voter ID law, as they consider reforms to Act 77, the bipartisan election reform bill that was passed in 2019.

Last month, House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, released a 99-page report on Pennsylvania’s election process and its election law. In addition to suggesting Voter ID and earlier deadlines for registration, the report also calls for signature verification on all mail-in ballots.

On Tuesday, Boozel and Hess acknowledged that the two-year-old state law needed a few repairs. But they urged lawmakers to sever their two requests from any broader effort to address election reform.

There are many other points in Act 77 that need to be addressed to promote consistency. We’d urge our state partners to move swiftly,” Hess said. 

Acknowledging the politically charged nature of the current debate, Boozel added that “we’re trying to remove the football and get back to the game.”

David Thornburgh, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based good government, The Committee of Seventy, told the Capital-Star on Tuesday, that he’s not sure how much room there is for common ground between county officials and the Legislature.

“We have two different constituencies who seem to care about two different things,” Thornburgh said, who also believes that lawmakers would be best served by heeding the commissioners’ concerns, since they lived through, and learned the lessons of, the difficult and painful 2020 presidential election.

“Let’s fix the things that are actually broken as opposed to an endless spectrum of hypotheticals of what could happen — which seems to be what’s powering most of the other proposals for election reform.”

And that means, he said, passing a clean bill extending the pre-canvassing window. Thornburgh’s group is less enamored of the proposal for the 15-day deadline. While that would give commissioners more time to process applications, it would give voters less time to apply, he noted.

In an email, House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman told the Capital-Star that the county commissioners’ concerns will be taken into account as reform legislation is being drafted.

“The House State Government Committee held a comprehensive slate of 10 hearings that did a deep-dive into our state’s broken election law and sought input on changes from a wide array of stakeholders including local elections officials, advocacy groups, and statewide election administrators,” Gottesman wrote. “Legislation stemming from those hearings is currently being drafted and the input received during those hearings is being considered. CCAP was able to testify during the committee’s work and their sought-after policy changes remain part of ongoing discussions about potential legislation.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.