Pa. county officials say bipartisan election reform bill is a step toward ‘badly-needed relief’

A point of contention, however, was the required public live stream for pre-canvassing efforts. 

By: - September 24, 2021 3:53 pm

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

Pennsylvania elections aren’t perfect, and while a bipartisan election integrity bill introduced in the state Senate doesn’t aim to solve everything, county elections officials say it’s a start to much-needed relief.

Anticipating high voter turnout and an influx of mail-in ballots, election officials across the commonwealth begged the Republican-controlled Legislature for more time to process ballots ahead of Election Day, and for lawmakers to push back the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot. 

Their requests went unfulfilled, and the final results — as expected — were delayed.

But as conversations on election integrity and potential reform have ramped up in Harrisburg, a piece of legislation introduced by Senate State Government Committee Chairman David Argall, R-Schuylkill, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Sharif Street, of Philadelphia, would address local needs.

The 11-page bill allows for pre-canvassing of mail-in ballots at least three days before an election, and moves back the deadline to receive applications for mail-in ballots from one week to two weeks before an election. It also includes guidance for mail-in ballot tracking through a barcode system, dropbox security, and live streams for the counting process.

Pre-canvassing is the process of opening the declaration envelope, removing and opening the outer secrecy envelope, and removing the actual ballot. The process does not include tabulation. During last November’s general election, county officials were only allowed to begin the pre-canvassing process at 7 a.m. on Election Day, eating up time that could have been spent counting results.

Six panelists — three county officials and three good government advocates — testified before the 11-member committee on Thursday, outlining the proposed bill’s strengths, and suggesting areas for improvement. 

“Everyone’s angry, and no one trusts anyone,” Argall said Thursday. “I understand that this is not necessarily a new issue in American public policy, but it’s pretty bad right now — much worse than I have seen. Our goal is not to solve every single problem, but to do the best we can at a difficult time in order to find a common-sense, bipartisan solution that can be signed by the governor.”

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Timothy Benyo, Lehigh County deputy chief clerk, and Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County’s director of elections and registration, said the legislation improves current guidelines. Though they would like to see more time for pre-canvassing, panelists added.

“It would provide badly-needed relief to counties so that our attention is not divided between two elections [on] the same day,” Lehman said of the additional three days for pre-canvassing. “I believe our precincts, our poll workers, our in-person voters, they should really be the priority on Election Day.’

With more time for pre-canvassing, Lehman added that counties have more time to focus on in-person voting and provide more timely results.

“I think that a week is probably going to to be, at least potentially, the sweet spot — or at least five business days,” Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, said of pre-canvassing.

A point of contention, however, was the required public live stream for pre-canvassing efforts. 

Citing lack of broadband and limited infrastructure, Schaefer noted that not every Pennsylvania county has the resources to establish a live stream, video residents might not even be able to access. 

She also raised concerns about what could happen if a stream cuts out in the middle of the pre-canvassing process, asking if a county would be required to stop pre-canvassing until it’s able to repair the feed.

Live feeds have not been mandated for Pennsylvania elections, but some counties, including Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, opted for video streams for added transparency in 2020.

“The problem is that people are concerned,” Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, told panelists. “And when something happens behind closed doors, it causes them to have concern whether it’s warranted or it’s not. Right now, we hear from constituents day after day about their lack of trust in the process, and having trust in the integrity and fidelity of our election process, which forms the bedrock of this republic, is really, really essential.”

Though not opposed to the live stream requirement, Lehman offered a change that would limit access to the live stream for auditing and review purposes.

“I believe the primary value in those recordings is really for security, auditing, and investigating purposes,” he said, adding that recordings could “betray” county infrastructure or election security measures. “If those recordings are made available as public documents, their availability, their dissemination, and the possible manipulation would undermine all of those interests.”

Questions about election integrity increased after former President Donald Trump launched a months-long campaign, arguing, without evidence, that widespread fraud caused his 2020 loss. Supporters, including some lawmakers in Harrisburg, echoed the unsubstantiated claims.

Argall and Street’s bill aims to start rebuilding faith in Pennsylvania elections through “reasonable” policies that also deliver results in a timely manner, they said.

“Our most important thing is making sure we preserve the ability and expand the ability for all Pennsylvanians to participate in the electoral process,” Street said.

If the legislation were to reach Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk in its current form, it would be met with a veto.

“This bill removes or reduces options such as permanent mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes that allow voters to receive and submit their ballot more easily and does not give counties the tools necessary to run elections as efficiently as possible,” a spokesperson for Wolf told the Capital-Star.

Two Pa. lawmakers are working on bipartisan election reform. Here’s what they’ve proposed

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