Pa.’s election code is in need of reform. But do the potential plans match local needs?

By: - May 30, 2021 7:53 am

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It’s no secret — Pennsylvania elections aren’t perfect, and proposals for change have been circulating in Harrisburg for months.

During the May 18 primary, voting machines in Luzerne County mislabeled Republican ballots. Fayette County reported that some ballots were missing a barcode for scanning. York County precincts, among others, ran out of ballots. 

But issues in Lancaster County — where 2,700 voters received mail-in ballots with incorrect return instructions, and at least 100 were sent ballots with someone else’s name — prompted Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, to announce plans for legislation that would suspend the use of no-excuse, mail-in ballots.

The proposed suspension would be in effect until the spring of 2023 or until lawmakers “make the necessary adjustments” to improve voting.

“It’s no secret that due to the changes enacted in Act 77, coupled with the impact of the pandemic, the Legislature and state have heard many complaints from voters and election officials alike,” Aument — who voted in favor of bipartisan election reform in 2019 — said in a recent statement.

A spokesperson for Aument told the Capital-Star that he hopes to introduce the legislation as soon as possible and  “bring everyone to the table” to discuss improvements.

With more experience running elections under the new law, local officials agree Act 77 could use reform, but too much would be a “jarring step backward,” Pat Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government group, said.

The way Christmas sees it, lawmakers have two options. They can “go big with a negotiated bipartisan package that includes a range of different reforms” or they can “stay focused on pre-canvassing ballots to provide desperately needed relief for counties.”

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, according to the Department of State.

“Allowing any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail has started to move us into 21st-century election administration,” Christmas told the Capital-Star. “That said, there are numerous areas we understand better after having run several elections with the new law.”

Earlier this month, state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, who serves as chairman on the House State Government Committee, released a 99-page report on Pennsylvania’s election process and its election law. 

The report comes after 30 hours of testimony on the electoral process and claims of voting “irregularities” in the November election. The report outlines suggestions for stricter voter ID law, earlier deadlines for registration, and signature verification on all mail-in ballots.

Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe, a Democrat, said there are “legitimate” issues with the law; however, mail-in voting is not one of them. Instead, he said, lawmakers should focus on allowing pre-canvassing — which means counties could begin opening, but not counting, mail-in ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day.

Local elections staff across Pennsylvania and the Department of State have echoed this plea, arguing that more time to process mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day would make for earlier, but still accurate, results.

“If the General Assembly could agree and do the things that 99 percent of people agree on, that’d be great,” Pipe said. “The problem is, I think there’s going to be amendments attached to it that are just going to be poison pills at the end of the day.”

In western Pennsylvania, Lawrence County Commissioner Morgan Boyd, a Republican, said elections staff worked out most of the kinks with mail-in ballots ahead of the 2020 November General Election.

But under Act 77, Boyd said it’s almost like county staff is running two elections — one by mail and the other in traditional precincts.

“It’s a system that I think by and large works well. We’ve never sent out a ballot through the mail-in system with incorrect information. We’ve also never received a report that we were able to substantiate which indicated any wrongdoing in Lawrence County as a result of the mail-in ballot system,” Boyd said. “So for me, it’s largely a system that adds a substantial amount of cost to the taxpayers.”

As a solution, Boyd suggested that the state consider moving the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot back to 15 days before an election — instead of seven.

“That gives us more time to process and lessens the risk of the voter not getting the ballot in time and having to vote through a provisional ballot,” he added.

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