State must fix election rules problem
When state leaders acted in bipartisan fashion in 2019 to make significant changes to the election law, no one imagined what was to come in just a matter of months.
Act 77, which enabled any voter to cast a ballot by mail, proved to be a blessing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Unlike other states, Pennsylvania already had a system in place allowing people to cast a ballot without having to risk infection by going to a public polling place, and without having to offer an allowable excuse as is required for traditional absentee voting.
But some of the rules established in the bill have caused problems for elections officials across Pennsylvania.
Lawmakers undoubledly envisioned that mail-in voting’s popularity would start modestly and grow as more voters became aware of the option and more accustomed to the idea. That would have allowed time to work out the kinks with a minimum of controversy.
But instead the new system took effect in a year with a pandemic and one of the most bitterly contested presidential elections in history. An unfamiliar process, logistical challenges and tremendous voter participation, especially by mail, made the vote-counting process exceedingly difficult.
The situation has been less dramatic in subsequent elections, but it’s still causing headaches for the people who have to count the votes.
Pennsylvania elections officials are pleading with the governor and lawmakers to make some changes. First and foremost, they want more time to start processing mailed ballots.
Under current law, precanvassing — inventorying the ballots, opening the envelopes that contain them and putting them through a scanner — cannot start until 7 a.m. on Election Day. That means having to do this time-consuming work with tens of thousands of ballots at once instead of spreading the work out.
Even having a few extra days ahead of the election to start the process would make a huge difference, the people who run Pennsylvania’s elections say. A few weeks would be even better.
House Democrats heard testimony from Allegheny County officials, who offered a rundown on the massive scope of election staffers’ work. The county, they said, had 161,497 mail-in or absentee ballots returned and counted in the November election, and about 115 people were ready to start precanvassing when 7 a.m. arrived.
Democratic Rep. Sara Innamorato of Allegheny County said staff on Election Day effectivley had to conduct two elections, one in-person and the other involving precanvassing and then actually tallying mail ballots.
In 2021 the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania identified more precanvassing time as a priority. The group also wants the state to move the deadline for mailed ballot applications back to 15 days prior to an election.
This should not be a partisan issue. It’s simply a matter of making sure a basic function of government is performed effectively and efficiently. Keep in mind that the commissioners association represents communities all over the state, many of them dominated by Republicans.
This has nothing to do with the ongoing controversy over whether or not mail-in voting is a good idea, though we believe it is. Right now state law allows it, and it’s incumbent on state leaders to make sure that the process is as smooth as possible.
Elections officials have been calling for improvements for years, but nothing has happened in the Legislature to address the issue. That’s because some lawmakers are demanding that these changes be made in conjunction with controversial election proposals.
It’s time for Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg to identify election law changes that have broad support and enact legislation putting them into effect as soon as possible. They should leave the politically fraught issues for the campaign trail and see if they can win more support for them in a future Legislature. The one we have now is politically divided.
More political brinkmanship now will just lead to nothing getting done, including this important work that’s clearly in the best interest of all Pennsylvania voters.