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Prepare for an Election Night of the endless counting…

Wave of mailed ballots may require changing rules to let counties start counting votes well before Election Day

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
Randall Wenger, Lancaster County’s chief elections clerk, explains features of the county’s Hart InterCivic Verity Voting system at a demonstration last fall. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

 Emily Previti / PA Post

Randall Wenger, Lancaster County’s chief elections clerk, explains features of the county’s Hart InterCivic Verity Voting system at a demonstration last fall. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

PSA: Brace for a stateside coronavirus outbreak that will disrupt our daily lives. That was the warning issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Remarks by CDC officials were not reassuring on Wall Street, as the stock market experienced a second day of steep decline over fears the virus will impact the global economcy — in particular, disrupting travel and interrupting supply chains, especially in China where the virus first emerged. The New York Times is monitoring developments and posting live updates here. The Pa. Department of Health also has extensive information on the virus. —Emily Previti, staff writer[\box]

Randall Wenger

Emily Previti / PA Post

Randall Wenger, Lancaster County’s chief elections clerk, explains features of the county’s Hart InterCivic Verity Voting system at a demonstration last fall. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

Pennsylvania is one of just four states that doesn’t start processing absentee and mailed ballots until after polls close on Election Day. And that’s a problem, because the number of mailed ballots is expected to balloon this year, thanks to election reforms signed into law in October.

Unlike Pennsylvania, the other three aren’t swing states. One is Maryland, where voters can mail ballots without an excuse (as in Pa.); the other two are Massachusetts and Mississippi, both of which only allow absentee voting with an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ten states plus D.C. start counting on Election Day before polls close, according to NCSL. The rest begin at some point prior: A dozen states let local jurisdictions tally ballots as they’re received, with another 10 allowing ballots to be counted starting two weeks before Election Day.

We checked how Pennsylvania compares to other states in this regard because the issue came up during a budget hearing (as reported in The Context last Friday), prompting some discussion among elected officials in Harrisburg and beyond.

At the Feb. 20 hearing about Pa. Department of State funding, senators and DoS officials talked about changing state law to allow counties to process absentee and mailed ballots before polls close on Election Day.

State Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), who broached the topic at the hearing, told us Friday he expects to get an amendment or separate measure drawn up for legislators to consider when they’re back in voting session in March.

House Majority Leader Brian Cutler, (R-Lancaster) on Monday said legislators are “positioning bills” that would make the change in time for the fall election, if the need to do so becomes apparent based on how counties handle mailed ballots for the April 28 primary.

We also asked county officials for feedback. They seemed to favor changing the law to allow absentee and mailed ballots to be processed prior to Election Day. They said an earlier start on Election Day itself wouldn’t necessarily help, because they’re usually too busy that day running the election to take time out to process ballots.

“We are on the phone that day from six in the morning til 10 that night,” said Franklin County Deputy Chief Jean Byers. “Even if we can start opening early, I don’t know that it would make a difference. Anytime before Election Day would be very helpful, though.”

Santarsiero noted last week that Bucks County would need 10 hours to process the projected number of mailed ballots — 70,000, or 20 percent of presidential turnout — with the pair of high-speed scanners currently on hand there. That means the final vote count for the county wouldn’t be available until the next morning, if counting proceeds at the fastest-possible pace.

Lancaster County wouldn’t need quite so much time, but certainly more than the couple hours that typically pass between the time when polls close and when  unofficial results are reported, chief elections clerk Randall Wenger said.

Wenger says the state also should change the process for challenging absentee ballots. His idea is to publish the list of people who’ve requested absentees one week before the election and set a challenge deadline for the Friday preceding Election Day.

Ultimately, Wenger said, if Pennsylvania’s rules for absentee and mailed ballot processing are “left unchanged, November 2020 will make Iowa look like child’s play. It will be a mess of much, much greater proportions.” —Emily Previti

Best of the rest

Joseph Darius Jaafari / PA Post

Outside the Lebanon County Correctional Facility. The Pennsylvania institutional Law Project is suing the jail’s warden and two deputy wardens for violating inmate’s religious rights. (Joseph Darius Jaafari / PA Post)

  • Lebanon County jail inmate Eric McGill has been in solitary confinement for more than a year because McGill, a Rastafarian, won’t cut his dreadlocks. Lebanon’s own handbook for prisoners allows long hair if it’s in a bun or ponytail. But when McGill questioned his treatment and pointed to the rule, officials cited an “unofficial” exception for dreads and other hairstyles they claim could easily conceal a weapon. First, it’s against federal law to throw people in isolation over their religious practices. Also, anything over 15 days, for any reason, “is tantamount to torture,” and “McGill has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and anxiety,” PA Post’s Joseph Jaafari writes in his latest story. “He’s being tortured for his religious beliefs, essentially,” Amy Fettig, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, told Joseph. Read his full story here.

  • Union employee Roni Green easily won Tuesday’s special election in West Philadelphia to fill the 190th District seat left open by Movita Johnson-Harrell’s resignation. The Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the results in the very low turnout race.

  • Philadelphia is on track to open the nation’s first “safe injection” facility for heroin users, after a federal judge on Tuesday concluded the nonprofit that will run it wouldn’t be violating the law. This is a big deal, as public health experts believe providing supervised injection locations is a key way to prevent fatal overdoses and, hopefully, steer some addicts into treatment. The clinic could open in South Philly as soon as next week. Billy PennThe Inquirer, and NBC Philadelphia have stories .

  • Yesterday’s newsletter mentioned the Democratic Super PAC that is launching anti-Trump ads in key swing states. Here’s the one that will be airing in Pennsylvania, featuring Amy Raslevich of Pittsburgh. Politico has more on the ad campaign.

  • It’s primary campaign season. PennLive covered the debate between the two Democrats seeking to challenge GOP Rep. Scott Perry (10th District) this fall (one is Auditor General Eugene DePasquale), while WHYY covered a debate between the Democrats hoping to take on GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (1st District).

  • The upcoming Census will give people more space to describe their ethnicity. The paper form allots 16 blank spaces to those who identify as “white” or “Black or African American”; the online version allows 200 characters. Before, “the option to elaborate has only been available to Native Americans, people of Hispanic or Latino origin, Pacific Islanders and those who identify as ‘some other race,’” writes WHYY reporter Ximena Conde in her story on the effort to improve data on changing U.S. demographics. Read it here.

  • Meanwhile, in Adams County: Cashtown gets a shoutout in a new Census promo out last week on Twitter.  The 2010 count found about 450 people living in the community, home to the historic Cashtown Inn.

  • After years of delays, pipeline builder Williams has abandoned its project that would’ve routed natural gas from the Marcellus Shale into New York. StateImpact Pennsylvania has been following this story. Editor Scott Blanchard has the latest update in this post, which also links to a podcast conversation between reporter Susan Phillips and a member of the Holleran family, who lost some of their land to an eminent domain seizure for the pipeline project.

  • Two great journalism education opportunities in Pittsburgh next month! First, on March 20PA Post and partners are hosting a one-day conference on Pennsylvania’s Right to Know and Sunshine laws. Details here. A day later, on March 21, Investigative Reporters & Editors is bringing its Watchdog Workshop series to Pittsburgh. Registration includes a FREE IRE membership. Cost is $55 for professionals and $25 for students. Speakers include Chris Baxter, Spotlight PA; AmyJo Brown, Bridge Pittsburgh; Kellie Burkett, WPXI; Paula Knudsen, LNP Media Group; Rich Lord, PublicSource; Denise Malan, IRE & NICAR; Julian Sher, investigative journalist; Halle Stockton, PublicSource and more.  Optional hands-on spreadsheet training will take place on Sunday, March 22. This workshop will teach you how to use Excel for deadline and beat reporting on budgets, salaries, election data and more. No prior data experience necessary. The workshop and Sunday training will take place at Point Park University. Find additional information here. Email with questions.

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