A stack of ballots that arrived at the Berks County Office of Election Services June 4, two days after the deadline. Many thousands of ballots were late statewide, even in the seven jurisdictions covered by deadline extension orders.
Emily is a reporter for WITF who’s been covering voting and elections since July 2019 as part of her former role with statehouse accountability news organization PA Post. She was the senior reporter for statewide public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads. Previously, she covered city hall for PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.), was a watchdog and city hall reporter at The Press of Atlantic City and reported for the Northwest Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
State lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Tom Wolf Wednesday that would require the Department of State to produce a report on last week’s primary.
Sponsored by second-term Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Allegheny/Washington),HB2502 mandates that the report include more than two dozen data points on election procedure, such as poll staffing, voter registration and various components of mailed ballot processing.
Wolf’s spokeswoman says he plans to sign the measure. It would require DoS to finish the document before Aug. 1, just before GOP legislative leaders expect to start deliberations over making changes to Pennsylvania’s election code ahead of the November general election.
But Democrats and stakeholders outside the state legislature—including the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, voting rights advocates and county election directors – say talks on election code fixes need to begin immediately.
For months, they’ve warned that widespread mail-in would result in large numbers of ballots arriving at county election offices too late to be counted unless changes are made to the deadlines for applying for mail-in ballots and for returning them.
Their prediction came to pass in last week’s primary. The latest DoS statistics provided Wednesday show 400,000 ballots outstanding statewide. The exact number of those returned late is not yet known, in part, because some counties (including Philadelphia, with 88,000-plus to go as of Wednesday night) are still processing ballots under a deadline extension ordered by Gov. Wolf last week.
Across the state, many election offices reported being overwhelmed by the vote-by-mail avalanche. They also complained that the ability to apply for mail-in ballots all the way up until one week before the election created an enormous challenge, requiring counties to process and return ballots to voters with just days to go before the election.
“The only way an application deadline one week prior to elections will work is if everything goes absolutely perfect in the days leading up to the election,” said York County spokesman Mark Walters. “That means no glitches in the state’s system, no glitches in county election offices (supplies, tech, human capital, etc). No glitches in USPS processes. And the voter fills out the ballot almost immediately, gets [it] right back out into mail. No way these things align and work perfectly.”
State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia and Delaware), said the legislature should begin studying changes to these deadlines before August.
“Why we’d wait, would … be a curious consideration to any of us,” Williams said during a discussion about the bill earlier this week. “Other than we don’t want it to affect the November election and make sure it’s correct.”
Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther says she doesn’t believe GOP lawmakers are intentionally trying to delay the process.
“We’ve got a predominantly Republican legislature that disproportionately represents smaller counties, less populated counties, and more [heavily] Republican counties and, frankly, this isn’t affecting their people,” said Reuther, a Democrat, on Wednesday. “It’s affecting Philadelphia, it’s affecting the southeast. …I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is a conscious act of trying to disenfranchise Democrats. But whether it’s their intent or not, it’s having that effect.”
Republicans are waiting to move on this issue to give local elections officials time to finalize primary results so they can weight in on suggested changes based on their experiences, according to state Senate State Government Committee Chairman John DiSanto (R-Dauphin/Perry).
“To the extent there is consensus on changes, … we will look to move them in either existing or new legislation in enough time for them to be implemented prior to the general election,” DiSanto said in an emailed statement.
But waiting until August to begin in earnest is too late, particularly given everything that needs to happen apart from the legislative process: voter education, poll worker training and more, according to County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Lisa Schaefer.
“We can learn a lot from last week’s primary [already] to assure that November’s general election goes smoothly,” Schaefer said. “The state and counties must begin working together immediately to evaluate our experiences with the primary and start the legislative process, rather than waiting for the reports required by HB 2502 to be final.”