Voting security, reliability discussed
WEST CHESTER » As the May primary election approaches in Pennsylvania, the question of how to ensure public trust in the validity of election results is a topic for discussion, as a number of Republicans and others weigh in over perceived flaws in the state’s mail-in ballot law.
Earlier this month, GOP leaders in the Philadelphia area issued a set of recommendations they said would help “ensure our elections are efficient, transparent, and uniform moving forward.”
Those include having security guards at off-site drop boxes for absentee and mailin ballots; operating the boxes only during regular business hours; requiring voters dropping their ballot to sign a log at the box; and utilizing a video surveillance system at the drop box sites that county voter service staff can review and allow party staff to do the same.
In Chester County, the suggestions were met with muted acceptance by the Democratic majority on the Board of Commissioners, and support by their Republican colleague, although all three noted that some of
which the GOP officials suggest is already in place in the county.
The recommendations — which were signed by Chester County Republican Chairman Dr. Gordon Eck — come at the same time that the county’s Office of Voters Services has begin a multi-pronged effort to educate and inform voters of how the election process works in the county, and steps being taken to address issues that arose during last November’s election.
On March 18, Voter Services Director Karen Barsoum, along with county Solicitor Nicole Forzato, held a presentation of the system in place now and changes that will be made for the May 28 primary, answering questions from the public in attendance about the process.
Barsoum’s presentation included discussion of how voter rolls are maintained to help insure that only voters registered in the county take part in the local elections; updated ways the county will handle “chain of custody” regulations for both in-poll results and “drop box” balloting; new mail-in ballot systems designed to avoid problems encountered in November; and timelines for when results are tabulated and reported.
Part of her message, she said in an interview last week, was that voters who utilize the new practice of mail-in ballots should consider the “kitchen table” nature of voting now. That means, she suggested, not simply sitting down over coffee or weekday dinner to choose which candidates to cast a ballot for, but also being informed about how to cast the ballot properly and safely and how not to make mistakes that would nullify one’s vote.
A coffee spill on a ballot, a mistaken signature by a wife on her husband’s ballot, or a failure to follow complete procedures in mailing the ballot could all lead to votes being thrown out, she warned.
Barsoum — who took over the leadership of the county’s Voter Services in March 2021 after working as chief assistant in the Berks County office — also predicted that even with the decline in COVID-19 rates in the county over the past months, many voters who chose to stay away from polling places when the pandemic was in full force in 2020 and 2021 will continue to opt for the mailin system (unless it is rescinded by the courts or the legislature), is because it is more convenient for voters in the county to use.
She also warned that so long as the mail-in balloting procedure now in place continues — received ballots cannot be opened and presorted until Election Day, delaying the final count of votes — the previous practice of being able to report “final” results on Election Day will be but a memory. Days may pass before all the votes cast can be reliably counted and a winner reported, she said.
In their message, the GOP leaders took their cue from the Montgomery County GOP, which detailed problems encountered there last year, but that were not necessarily present in Chester County, or elsewhere.
“Over the past few years, our elections in Southeast Pennsylvania have been plagued with various issues that created great distrust in the system among many voters,” the release stated.
They cited “thousands” of incorrectly printed ballots, voters receiving the wrong mail-in ballots, election results changing two weeks after election day, misleading election result reporting, some polling places not having enough ballots on Election Day, representatives not being given meaningful opportunity to check mail-in ballots, and unmanned drop boxes. All these factors “have created a significant lack of trust in our voting system. Many voters feel their vote doesn’t count and tell us they won’t bother voting.
They called on Democrats who lead the five counties to adopt “reasonable, uniform election security measures …to ensure our elections are efficient, transparent, and uniform moving forward.”
In a statement issued Friday by county commissioners Chairwoman Marian Moskowitz and Vice Chairman Josh Maxwell, both Democrats, they said local election staff and officials “have always worked with both the Republican and Democratic parties to introduce, and continually review processes that allow voters to cast ballots in secure and safe ways, so that every legal vote can be recorded.
“With the introduction of Act 77 (the state’s mailin ballot law adopted with bipartisan support in 2019), the same collaborative process has continued and has applied to the availability of secure drop boxes to deliver mail-in and absentee ballots,” the pair said. “Our Voter Services staff work hard on every aspect of the election process yearround, and especially in the run-up to elections.
“We appreciate the time and attention that went into these recommendations, some of which are already part of the election process here in Chester County,” they said of the GOP message, which was forwarded to them last week. “We will work further with the party leaders to determine what additional steps may be feasible.”
For her part, Republican Commissioner Michelle Kichline suggested that the county hire an outside consultant to help train election workers and staff, and adopt further security measures suggested by her GOP colleagues.
“Act 77 was a flawed piece of legislation that was implemented statewide for the first time during a pandemic,” she said, calling for the state legislature to revisit it. “Throughout the Commonwealth it has been implemented differently and has created confusion and, like in 2021 here in our county, some administrative issues.
She also praised Barsoum’s “common-sense changes” to the mail-in process including chain of custody protocols and color-coded ballot bags., but agreed that the law “has pushed the tabulation of votes well past the election date, which creates staffing issues and a perception of uncertainty in results.”
Barsoum said in her interview last week that in the near future her department will begin posting videos on its social media and website to explain changes to voters, and educate them on how the process works.