With primary in rearview mirror, Wolf, Republicans agree more election tweaks needed

Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, announced he is retiring at the end of his current term. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

(*Update: This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. on 6/30/20 to clarify that some counties did not finish counting their votes until June 17, which is the last legal day to do so.)

A key Pennsylvania lawmaker said he wants to take another look at state election law to prevent a drawn out vote count in November.

The call for change comes after new voting rules led to a weeklong delay in final results in Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary election.

But any action would need to take place in the waning months of a high stakes presidential election as President Donald Trump, seeking reelection, has frequently politicized the voting process itself.

In the hunt for a second term, Trump has also frequently made political hay of the voting process, delegitimizing results with false claims of fraud.

On Monday, his reelection campaign and the national Republican party even filed a federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania, saying the state and its 67 county election boards jeopardized election security by, for example, setting up in-person ballot drop off boxes. 

Counties run by Republicans and Democrats had utilized such boxes.

While Trump may set the tone for national politics, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming and the House State Government Committee Chair, said it didn’t necessarily have to impact Harrisburg’s own debate. 

Last week, the committee, which handles all voting matters, passed an omnibus bill that included numerous tweaks to state election law. The changes include a tracking number on each ballot and giving voters the OK to drop off a sealed mail-in ballot at their polling place.

Everett downplayed the specifics to the Capital-Star, instead saying that the vote represented the start of a third round of negotiations over the commonwealth’s election law.

The veteran lawmaker, set to retire at the end of the year, said he wasn’t sure what the final bill would look like, but planned to work over the summer with his colleagues to find a solution before the electoral home stretch.

Most of the changes stem from last fall, when Pennsylvania opened the books on its election law for the first substantial changes since the statutes were written in the 1930s

A deal between the GOP-controlled General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf allowed for Pennsylvanians to vote by mail en masse. Previously, Pennsylvanians needed a work or medical excuse to vote via absentee ballot.

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“We have never had expanded mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. We knew there’s going to be issues with them. And we knew we were gonna have to do a piece of legislation to address them,” Everett told the Capital-Star. “And here we are.”

Mail-in ballots have taken on added importance amid the coronavirus outbreak, as voters turned from voting machines to ballpoint pens to make their voices heard without leaving home.

Pennsylvanians requested 1.8 million mail-in or absentee ballots for the primary. They returned 1.5 million of them. Some counties, such as Philadelphia, didn’t finish counting until June 17, the last legal day to do so.*

The unprecedented wave of paper swamped county election boards, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. 

The group lobbies lawmakers to attend to county priorities, which include changes to the elections that local officials must administer.

Schaefer said that some counties did acquire high-speed letter openers and scanners to process the flood of envelopes. 

But any machine needs a trained person behind it, and some jurisdictions simply lacked the manpower to keep up, she added.

So while some counties had results ready on election night, others said “we’re going to be extremely busy with everything else, and if [results] extends past that, so be it,” Schaefer said.

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Schaefer and Everett both suggested moving the application deadline for mail-in ballots back from a week to 15 days before the election. 

Both also want more time for counties to pre-canvass mail-in ballots. Election officials can only begin to open envelopes under state law at 7 a.m. on Election Day.

In an email, Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf, said that the governor agreed that counties should have more time, but did not favor moving back the application deadline.

Either way, Wolf “is eager to work with counties and other election stakeholders to craft a solution that gives Pennsylvanians the time they need to return a voted ballot.”

County officials had raised concerns about a delayed count earlier in March during a second round of electoral reforms if they were not given extra time to pre-canvass mail-in ballots before Election Night. But at the time, Everett said, his Republican colleagues were opposed.

Pre-canvassing involves opening a mail-in ballot, but not counting the votes. After seeing the trickle of primary night results, Everett said his colleagues were willing to give elections officials extra time.

Everett said he could even get behind tallying votes early, but was skeptical his Republican colleagues would agree. At last week’s committee hearing, some GOP lawmakers expressed concern that early vote counts could leak and impact voter enthusiasm and turnout. 

The uncertainty of a long count has caused consternation among candidates, incumbents, the press and armchair politicos alike.

“If the presidential election were to come down to Pennsylvania, which is possible … literally all the eyes of America will be on Pennsylvania,” Rep. Kevin Boyle, of Philadelphia and the ranking Democrat on the State Government Committee said. “And we do not want to be Florida in 2000.”

Some of his colleagues may be “not so hot” on mail-in voting, but the committee “didn’t argue whether mailing ballots are good, bad or indifferent,” he pointed out. 

Everett indicated he would not support a Harrisburg-driven effort to limit mail-in voting, such as preventing counties from sending every voter a ballot application. He preferred to leave the choice to local officials.

 “We already made that decision,” Everett said. “And I mean, the genie’s out of the bottle, there’s no going backwards.”

Newly elected House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, played a key role in the electoral reforms. In an email, Cutler spokesperson Mike Straub said that the speaker “would be interested in any effort that ensures fairness, access and timely accurate results.”

Straub did not specify what reforms would look like, but pointed out that the House could be interested in returning for a rare summer session in July to tackle some bills.

He added that agenda decisions were now up to new Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.

Whatever the General Assembly does, said county advocate Schaefer, the conversation needs to be happening now. Even September may be too late for some counties to fully implement changes before the election.

If any final edits pass, it would be the third change to state election law in the final 12 months before the 2020 election.