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Bill allowing Pa. counties to process mail ballots early clears first hurdle in Pa. House

A new bill would give election officials a week to process mail ballots and make other long-sought changes. But it faces a long road to becoming law.

  • By Carter Walker of Votebeat
Mail-in ballots are sorted in Allentown, Pa. in 2022. A new bill would give counties more time to prep these ballots.

 Matt Smith / For Spotlight PA

Mail-in ballots are sorted in Allentown, Pa. in 2022. A new bill would give counties more time to prep these ballots.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. 

After years of advocacy and political deadlock, Pennsylvania counties could be a step closer to getting more time to process mail ballots ahead of elections — if partisan disputes don’t sink the effort once again.

A committee in the Democratic-controlled state House voted Monday to pass a bill that, among other changes, would allow counties to open mail ballot envelopes, flatten the ballots within, and prepare them to be tallied before Election Day — a labor-intensive process commonly known as pre-canvassing.

Election administrators have long argued the change would allow the commonwealth to report its election results more quickly. But while lawmakers across the political spectrum have generally been open to pre-canvassing, it has been repeatedly mired in fights between Republicans and Democrats over more controversial election measures.

It’s still possible that conflicts like these could stymie the effort in this new legislative session.

The measure needs to get through the full state House, which has only a one-vote Democratic majority, and then the Republican-controlled state Senate, before landing on Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk.

The state Senate’s Republican majority, in a statement to Votebeat and Spotlight PA, stressed Republicans’ top election law priority for the session: Voter ID.

“Voters deserve to have confidence in our electoral process,” said spokesperson Kate Flessner. “A holistic approach to addressing concerns is most appropriate, with voter identification being a key component

A spokesperson for House Democrats said no vote before the full chamber has been scheduled, but that they “have long prioritized important reforms that will make it easier for voters to exercise their right to cast a ballot and improve the process for county election offices.”

Shapiro didn’t respond to a request for comment about his own election preferences, or if he would support passage of a bill that also included a new voter ID law. But in the past, he has said that he is open to some form of mandatory voter identification requirement, and has also said he supports pre-canvassing.

House Bill 847, introduced by Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre), would give counties seven days to begin processing mail-in and absentee ballots before Election Day. It would also tighten the deadline for voters to request mail-in or absentee ballots to 11 days prior to an election, from the current seven days.

Conklin, who chairs the House State Government Committee, stressed that these are changes counties — which administer elections — have been seeking for years.

“This bill is something that is asked for by the people who [run elections], because they are tired of being blamed for something that they didn’t do,” Conklin said. “They’re tired of people waiting three days for the election results. This gives them a chance days early to get those [results] ready to go out.”

Since Pennsylvania lawmakers dramatically expanded the commonwealth’s use of mail voting in 2019, county election administrators have blamed lags in reporting unofficial results on both the lack of legal pre-canvassing, and the proximity of the ballot request deadline to Election Day.

During the 2020 presidential election, unofficial results were delayed for multiple days in several counties due to continued counting of mail-in ballots. It was during the long wait for results that President Trump and his supporters falsely alleged that Democrats were manipulating ballot counting in order to tip the election in Joe Biden’s favor. Biden won the state by more than 81,000 votes.

In its 2023 list of priorities, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, a state advocacy association for Pennsylvania counties, listed both items as its top two election related priorities.

A bipartisan election law advisory board set up by the state legislature recommended in 2022 that the legislature allow two weeks of pre-canvassing and recommended earlier this year that the legislature move back the ballot request date to account for slow mail delivery.

Republicans on the committee unanimously voted against the bill Monday.

“I look at this legislation as a solution in search of a problem,” Rep. Brad Roae (R., Crawford) said during the hearing, adding that counties generally kept up a brisk ballot count on Election Day for the 2022 midterms. The year’s marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate were both called on election night.

“This legislation, I’m not sure what the goal is,” Roae said.

Bucks County Commissioner Robert Harvie, who in the past has served as chair of the county board of elections, told Votebeat and Spotlight PA that there has for years been bipartisan consensus around the need for pre-canvassing in Bucks.

“The three commissioners here have really been ringing the bell on this since after the primary in 2020, since we saw how taxing it has been on staff to get everything done in a timeline that everyone is accustomed to,” he said. “It just became obvious that we’re not going to be able to do that if we have to start at 7 a.m. on Election Day.”

Harvie said that while counties have found ways to deal with mail ballots without pre-canvassing, it is generally by bringing in staff from other departments and having them work long shifts, which drives up costs. He added that moving back the ballot request deadline will also give counties the needed time to focus on preparations for the in-person election.

Although the original version of the bill introduced by Conklin included pre-canvassing and moved the ballot request deadline back 14 days, a version with amendments introduced by Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia), moved that deadline to 11 days before Election Day and was the version which ultimately passed.

His version also modified the bill so that a voter could request a mail-in or absentee ballot in person at an election office up to the day before the election.

Both Conklin’s and Kenyatta’s versions of the bill sought to update several areas of state election law that have seen repeated litigation since Act 77 passed in 2019, but Kenyatta’s language was more explicit.

Under the language the House State Government Committee passed, state law would be updated to clarify that simple voter mistakes in preparing a mail ballot — not placing a ballot inside an inner secrecy envelope or not dating the return envelope — should not be grounds for disqualifying that ballot.

The legislature’s bipartisan advisory board had also recommended making the secrecy envelope optional and not disqualifying a ballot simply for lacking dates.

During the 2022 midterm election, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled that undated or incorrectly dated ballots were not to be counted under current law. Secrecy envelopes are also fatal defects under the courts’ current interpretation of the law.

The bill would also require counties to notify voters of deficiencies in their ballot, and in the case of missing signatures, Kenyatta’s addition would give voters up to six days after an election to sign the envelope and have their ballot counted, a step known as “curing.”

A case the state’s Commonwealth Court decided in March saw the Republican National Committee challenge the curing practices of some counties on the grounds that it constituted pre-canvassing, which under current law is not allowed before Election Day. The court dismissed the case on procedural grounds without ruling on the merits.

In a statement, County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Lisa Schaefer said the association supports the seven days of pre-canvassing time, but that it is in favor of moving the ballot request deadline back to 14 days, rather than 11 offered in Kenyatta’s amendment.

Schaefer also took particular issue with the allowance for voters to apply for a ballot in-person up to the day before the election, saying counties “caution strongly against it.”

The bill passed out of the Democratic-controlled committee in a 12 to 9, party-line vote.

Harvie, the Bucks County Commissioner, said he is optimistic Shapiro would sign the bill if it reaches his desk, though he said he has not spoken with him. He is also somewhat worried that the parts of the bill in addition to pre-canvassing, like curing, could be unpalatable to Republicans.

“I’m a little concerned about putting some things in there that could be pushing it too far for the Senate, but at the same time we do need clarification on these things,” he said.

Conklin, when asked after the meeting if he had been in touch with his counterpart on the Senate State Government Committee, Chairman Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), said, “We’re hoping to have those discussions soon. We’re just getting started.”

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