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From the archives 2020

Lawmakers mount new push to give Pa. counties more flexibility in counting mail-in ballots

by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

County commissioners for months have pleaded for more flexibility to begin processing mail-in and absentee ballots before Election Day, a practice known as “pre-canvassing.”
TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — With a partisan logjam holding up election reforms in the Pennsylvania legislature, lawmakers are making one final push to fix what county officials across the state say is the number one issue standing in the way of a timely counting of votes.

Facing an unprecedented deluge of potentially millions of mail-in and absentee ballots, county election officials are currently prevented from beginning to process any of them until Nov. 3. As a result, it could take many days after the election for them to finalize an accurate tally.

County commissioners for months have pleaded for more flexibility to begin the process in advance, a practice known as “pre-canvassing.”

“That’s our main need from the legislature right now on this,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar said Wednesday at a news conference. “So far, it seems like all or nearly all of the largest counties that I’ve spoken with so far are planning to count 24/7.”

In recent weeks, there appeared to be agreement between Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Republicans. A bill that would allow counties three days of pre-canvassing passed the House, but drew fierce opposition from Democrats and Wolf because Republicans tied the change to a ban of satellite drop boxes, and giving paid, partisan poll watchers access to polling places across the state.

Now, with the election fast approaching, one House Democrat, Kevin Boyle, has introduced new legislation solely focused on pre-canvassing, giving counties a 10-day window before Nov. 3

“There’s no reason that we can’t come to an agreement,” Boyle (D., Philadelphia) said, “unless — and I think with every passing day it’s looking more and more likely that this is the case — the Republicans don’t want additional pre-canvassing time for counties because it would not serve their political ends.”

House Republicans this week participated in a call to discuss granting counties four or five days to pre-canvass ballots, the Associated Press first reported.

Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), who sits on a key committee and participated in the call, told Spotlight PA that lawmakers discussed amending an election bill that has advanced to the Senate to provide for pre-canvassing as well as instituting additional requirements to physically secure drop boxes.

“I don’t know what Boyle has, but we just don’t have time for that,” Diamond said. “We only have three session days left before the election, unless they call us back next week to do something, but the Senate has to act first no matter what happens.”

Former state representative and current Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo said pre-canvassing should be a top priority. He said his county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for machines that sort and open outer envelopes, and that polling places will be staffed at all hours just to process mailed ballots.

“I don’t think there is any way that we’re going to get through 200,000 and open ’em, remove the ballot, scan ’em, and tabulate ’em just with one day,” said DiGirolamo, a Republican.

“This is not a partisan issue. This does not give an advantage to the Democrats nor an advantage to the Republicans,” he added. “It just allows the counties to avert an awful lot of confusion.”

Consideration of Boyle’s bill would begin in either the House or Senate State Government Committee. The Republicans who chair those panels did not directly answer questions about whether they would put such a measure up for a vote.

“There have continued to be discussions among legislators and other key stakeholders about pre-canvassing and other potential election code changes, and I stand prepared to move legislation quickly if consensus can be achieved,” Sen. John DiSanto (R., Dauphin) said.

Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), DiSanto’s counterpart in the House, noted that the bill already advanced by the House and sent to the Senate would make such a change.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for House Republicans, did not say whether new pre-canvassing legislation is forthcoming but said the caucus remains “sensitive to the needs of counties in achieving that goal.”

Republicans in the House are also pursuing the creation of a GOP-led “election integrity” panel with subpoena power, which Democrats fear could be used to slow the certification of Pennsylvania’s election results. A vote on the plan, which would only require support from a majority of House lawmakers, was put on hold last week after a GOP representative tested positive for the coronavirus.

Since then, the resolution has lost support from about a dozen Republicans, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

Whether Democrats and Republicans will be able to find common ground on anything before the election is unclear. But DiGirolamo said he saw a similar stalemate play out in 2019, when Wolf and both caucuses were eventually able to negotiate the first major changes to Pennsylvania’s election code in decades.

“There was kind of an agreement between the Democrats and the Republicans that they would do away with the straight-party voting, which is what the Republicans wanted,” he said. “And the Democrats wanted mail-in voting, so the Republicans agreed to put both of those issues in the bill.”

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