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Counties told to prepare for avalanche of mailed-in ballots

State officials say counties should buy more scanners

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
State Sen. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, questions Department of State officials during a budget hearing Thursday.

State Sen. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, questions Department of State officials during a budget hearing Thursday.

Ahead of the WITF Grand Championship Spelling Bee this weekend, WITF and PA Post staffers will engage in their own spelling competition on Smart Talk this morning. Play along at 9 a.m. (listen to the broadcast on the radio or stream it here). -Emily Previti, Newsletter Producer/Reporter
Sen. Steven Santarsiero

State Sen. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, questions Department of State officials during a budget hearing Thursday.

In past presidential elections in Pennsylvania, about 5 percent of ballots were submitted by mail.

Those votes were cast under absentee ballot rules that required voters to provide a reason, such as work or illness, why they couldn’t make it to the polls in person.

But a new law signed last fall allows Pennsylvanians to submit their ballots by mail without an excuse. And that could mean lots more ballots being mailed this year — as much as 20 percent of the total vote in the fall general election, Department of State officials told lawmakers during the department’s budget hearing Thursday.

DoS has told counties to be prepared to handle an influx of mail-in ballots in time for the April 28 primary. What, exactly, does that entail?

Buy more scanners, for one, DoS Secretary Kathy Boockvar told legislators on Thursday, noting counties are eligible for partial reimbursement from the state for the costs of additional equipment.

State Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) floated another possibility: Let counties start processing absentee and mailed ballots before polls close on Election Day.

Bucks County, for example, currently has two central scanners. Each costs $30,000 and can process about 3,500 ballots per hour. Assuming 20 percent of the county’s voters mail their ballots for the November election, it would take 10 hours for the county to get through them, Santarsiero said.

“Without having to buy another piece of equipment, they could get those 70,000 ballots counted in 10 hours if we allowed counting to begin when polls open,” Santarsiero said. “That’s something I think we, in the legislature, need to consider.”

Boockvar said Santarsiero’s idea could work in Pa., and noted that some states start counting four weeks before Election Day.

Given no one can predict how many votes will be returned by mail, Santarsiero said, the state and local elections officials would be wise to do both: Buy scanners and change the rules to permit counting to begin before Election Day.

“No one is going to know for sure until we get well into the fall exactly how many of these ballots we’re talking about,” Santarsiero said. “I think everyone assumes, probably accurately, that Pennsylvania is going to play … a pivotal role in this year’s presidential election. … It would not be good if we didn’t know until a day or two later what the outcome was because we didn’t have the capacity to count.” — Emily Previti

Best of the rest

Val Finnell, left, gives a thumbs down, as others applaud after the Pittsburgh City Council voted 6-3 to pass gun-control legislation, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The bill, introduced in the wake of the synagogue massacre last October, places restrictions on military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle that authorities say was used in the attack that killed 11 and wounded seven. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

  • More municipalities are taking an interest in Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances. Buffalo Township in Union County passed one earlier this month. In York County, West Manheim Township supervisors voted 4-1 to approve such an ordinance earlier this week, WGAL reports. Val Finnell, Pennsylvania director for Firearms Owners Against Crime, told PA Post’s Ed Mahon on Thursday that four counties — Bradford, Huntingdon, Sullivan and Cambria — have passed non-binding resolutions. Fayette County, meanwhile, is set to adopt its ordinance in March, Finnell said. Ed has looked at the debate over these ordinances, including within the gun rights community.

  • Will churchgoer donations end up funding sex abuse settlements? The short answer is, yes, WITF’s Brett Sholtis found. Brett looked into it after the diocese of Harrisburg declared bankruptcy — and stressed its individual parishes and their assets aren’t included in that process. His full story is here.

  • Western Pa.-based Guardian Elder Care has agreed to pay nearly $15.5 million to settle Medicare fraud claims against the nursing home chain. WESA’s Sarah Boden writes: “U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said elder fraud is not uncommon, … but ‘we don’t usually see it on the scope that Guardian Elder Care engaged in. They were the largest independent provider of skilled nursing services in Pennsylvania.’” Read Sarah’s full story here.

  • Cue the panic among suburban Democrats about the continued rise of Bernie Sanders. “Right now Chester County tends to be more in the moderate position,” Dick Bingham, chairman of the county Democrats, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We just barely turned blue, so we’re still very much in that kind of middle of the political spectrum range.”

  • U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was in western Pa. this week defending the GOP Senate’s acquittal of President Donald Trump in the recently concluded impeachment trial. In a speech in Westmoreland County, Toomey worried about impeachment becoming a too regular event, talked about the need to extend the Trump tax cuts, and said he wants to make it clear that a president (i.e. a Democrat) can’t ban fracking. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Julian Routh has the story.

  • Routh also has the latest on the civil war happening among Allegheny County Democrats, including the intervention of Rep. Mike Doyle, who is calling on the party’s county chair to resign.

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