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Employees open mail-in ballots at the Lancaster County Government Building in Lancaster city so they can be scanned on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

The Lancaster County commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday to hire a new vendor to print and manage the county’s mail ballots, even as they disagreed over the safety of voting by mail.

The new vendor, NPC Inc., is a Blair County-based printer recommended by three other Pennsylvania counties of similar or larger size, including Montgomery, Chester and Dauphin counties, said Linda Schreiner, the county’s director of purchasing, during Wednesday’s commissioners’ meeting.

NPC already prints the county’s ballots used for in-person voting on Election Day. The company was founded in 1954 as News Printing Company, and it published three weekly newspapers in Blair County, according to its website. It shifted away from newspaper publication in the 1980s and began to focus on government and commercial printing jobs.

When Pennsylvania passed a massive election law overhaul in 2019, it added a “no-excuse” mail ballot option, allowing any registered voter to vote by mail. Larger counties, such as Lancaster, have had to employ outside vendors to handle its rapidly expanding mail ballot operations.

The county’s previous vendor, Kalamazoo-based Michigan Election Resources -- now known as Plerus -- took responsibility for several ballot printing errors this year, one of which led the county to spend four days hand transferring more than 12,600 mail ballots in the 2021 municipal primary election.

The county exited that contract earlier this year and is seeking more than $23,000 in damages from MER/Plerus.

The contract with NPC would serve to back fill the county’s previous contract with Plerus and it would only run through the 2021 General Election. Under the contract, the county will pay NPC an estimated $28,700 to print ballots, stuff envelopes and mail the county’s mail ballots for the upcoming election. That’s a 30% cost increase from the county’s previous contract with MER/Plerus, and it was the lowest bid. The contract also includes two one-year extension options for the 2022 and 2023 elections.

Though the commissioners all approved the new contract, board members again butted heads over the safety and security of Pennsylvania’s elections under Act 77 of 2019, the state’s election law overhaul.

“Mail-in balloting is here to stay, mail-in balloting is secure,” said County Commissioner Craig Lehman, a Democrat who urged the state to allow counties time to precanvass (open mail-ballot envelopes and prepare them to be counted on Election Day). “Nearly all of this angst would go away if we had pre-canvassing, and the reason we don't have pre-canvassing is because some partisans want to have the continued churn, they want the drama that fits the narrative they want to put forward.”

Republican Commissioner Josh Parsons, however, expressed doubt about the security of mail-in voting. He claimed, without offering evidence, that mail voting is less secure than voting in person.

The board’s third member, Republican Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, echoed Parsons’ argument, saying mail voting is unsafe because of the swift approval of the law and its interpretation by the Department of State and state Supreme Court.

“When you can't check signatures, when you can cure ballots, the list goes on. ... This is the reason why the majority of the people in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have questions about how we conduct elections,” D’Agostino said, referencing state Supreme Court rulings from the 2020 election. “It’s the majority of Pennsylvanians, not just one party, and until we get this (law) fixed, we’re going to have this issue.”

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