County commissioners are urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to make changes to the state’s election code before the municipal elections in November.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania held a news conference Tuesday afternoon, accusing the General Assembly of “inaction” on election reform. In particular, commissioners are calling on the General Assembly to allow counties to begin counting mail-in ballots before Election Day and extend the mail-in ballot application deadline.
Their demands relate to Act 77, a bipartisan law passed in 2019 which allowed no-excuse mail-in voting in Pennsylvania for the first time. Little did lawmakers know at the time that mail-in voting would surge in popularity in the 2020 election, due to the coronavirus pandemic
Across the nation, 32 states allow counties to “pre-canvass”, or open and prepare mail-in and absentee ballots that they receive prior to election day. Pennsylvania isn’t one of them.
County officials tried to convince lawmakers to allow pre-canvassing before the 2020 elections, since more than 2.6 million people cast ballots by mail. County officials warned without some pre-canvassing, it would take days to count all the votes. State Republicans blocked legislation allowing for pre-canvassing; Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and other Democrats supported it.
Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel said that the delay in counting votes caused a “huge financial burden” to counties.
“We hired as many as 20 people [to count ballots] for election day in the evening … whereas we could be using the same staff over a longer period of time,” Boozel said.
House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, has called the state’s election law “god-awful.”
Grove said that his committee will introduce an election reform bill sometime in June. His office published a 99-page report on election reform in May based on a series of 10 hearings with election officials, policy experts and election reform advocates.
The report summarizes several election reform proposals, including two championed by county commissioners. Other proposals covered in the report include limiting third-party mailing of ballot applications and requiring signature verification for mailed ballots.
Grove pushed back on counties’ accusations of inaction.
“Listen, we’re looking at comprehensive solutions, we held comprehensive hearings,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues that we need to address with election reform moving forward, we plan on addressing all those issues in June.”
County commissioners also want the General Assembly to change the deadline to request a mail-in ballot from seven days before election day to 15 days. Wolf has opposed that idea in the past, while Republican lawmakers have supported it.
Sherene Hess, Indiana County Commissioner, said the seven-day deadline is too tight of a turnaround to allow for a smooth election process, creating anxiety for both voters and county officials.
“It’s really a very compressed amount of time for the County Elections Office to process that application, send it back to the voter, and then for the voter to return that to the county via mail in seven days,” Hess said.
Commissioners stressed that their bipartisan committee unanimously supports these two reforms. They said that these two proposals, in particular, will ease a lot of problems that election officials faced in 2020. They note other potential changes to election law tend to be more polarizing across partisan lines, such as stricter voter ID requirements or automatic voter registration.
Boozel said that county election commissioners have something the legislature doesn’t possess: hands-on election administration experience. That is why he and other commissioners believe that their two priorities must be shared by the General Assembly.
“They need to start listening to what we are dealing with,” Boozel said. “I hope that they will do exactly that and take us at our word that these are the two primaries that need to be taken care of.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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