2020 primary mail in ballots

In this file photo, thousands of mail-in ballots sit in the Lancaster County Board of Elections office waiting to be counted in the June 2, 2020 primary. County elections officials expect some 120,000 Lancaster County residents (possibly more) to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Lancaster County election officials are adding staff and technology with the aim of announcing general election results soon after the polls close Nov. 3, but much that could influence how quickly ballots are tallied remains up to the courts and state Legislature.

The county is making space for about 30 temporary Election Day workers on the fifth floor of the Lancaster County Government Building, where they will help process mail-in ballot applications and scan ballots. During past presidential elections, the county has typically hired 10 such workers. In addition to the temporary workers, the county board of elections will also increase its permanent staff by one full-time worker and two part-time workers.

More technology will also be used to process ballots. The county is purchasing an additional envelope opener that processes 40,000 envelopes per hour, an additional high-speed scanner to process mail ballots and 24 new mail tray carts to store mail ballots.

The new hires and equipment are expected to cost approximately $250,000, drawn from a combination of federal, state and county sources.

County officials say the additional workers and machines are necessary to handle the 120,000 mail-in ballots it estimates it will need to distribute to voters in the first presidential election since Pennsylvania expanded its decades-old elections code to include no-excuse mail-in voting.

The county aims to speed up its process from the June 2 primary, when results were not fully counted and verified until approximately a week after the election. In June, the county received more than 50,000 mail-in votes, less than half of the number of ballots the county is expecting to distribute when it mails out its ballots at the end of September.

The county will also choose a new vendor to print ballots. A widespread scanning issue impacted 6,000 ballots scanned of the approximately 56,000 votes cast in person on election day in June, said Randall Wenger, the chief clerk of the Lancaster County Board of Elections. The county plans to award a contract before the end of the month.

County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, who chairs the elections board, said he has little concern about changing ballot vendors approximately a month prior to sending out mail ballots to be delivered the first week of October.

“We’re confident the new vendor that we’re going to have will be able to provide us the ballots we need,” he said.

Still, if state officials want quick and accurate voting returns on or close to Election Day, the General Assembly needs to make changes to the elections law.

“The outcomes of (state and federal) lawsuits and what the Legislature does, we’ll have to react to those and if there’s any change to the timeline and make sure we’re able to meet that timing,” D’Agostino added. “We’re not in control of that. We’re going to have to react to that; that’s more of a concern than actually our new vendor.”

Role of legislation, lawsuits

Since the elections law’s passage in 2019, county elections officials have been asking the state to pass a series of fixes, with Lancaster’s officials advocating for employees to be allowed to open and begin processing mail-in votes prior to 8 a.m. on Election Day.

“We stated numerous times, maybe innumerable times, counties need more time to open and count these ballots in advance of election day,” Wenger said. “I believe that it would be helpful to (count) in advance, accounting for all of the challenges of Election Day itself so that it all doesn’t have to be done on Election Day and give results much more promptly to the public because I believe they’ll want to know. Our goal is to give them an accurate count and give them a timely count.”

Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), the chair of the House state government committee, said he is near finalizing a bill with House Republicans, the Senate and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration that would move the mail-in ballot application deadline to 15 days prior to the election instead of the current seven days.

The lawmakers have reached “some consensus” that counties should be able to process ballots -- which entails opening them, verifying the voter and signature and preparing the ballot to be scanned – before Election Day, but have not agreed yet on how many days in advance, Everett said.

Everett’s committee is also considering the recommendations released in a report earlier this month by Pennsylvania’s Department of State to alter the state’s election code before the presidential election. It recommends the state require county boards to accept mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 6.

Lawsuits are also shaping how the November election will be conducted.

For example, Lancaster County does not plan to put out a drop-off box for the presidential election because President Donald Trump’s campaign sued the state, claiming the campaign has proof of voter fraud related to such boxes. The county had a ballot drop-off box in the vestibule of the county building in the spring.

The lawsuit is among several filed across the state, including a number seeking to extend the mail-in ballot collection deadline to Nov. 10.

D’Agostino said he believes the state should have a cut-off date of Election Day for counties to receive mail ballots, as the law currently requires.

“Whatever date you pick, somebody's not going to like it,” he said. “The envelope should be delivered the date of the election, when the votes are counted, so we know who the next congressman or whatever the position is. Election Day is Nov. 3. We should have results no later than the next day.”

Everett said he knows time is ticking to let county officials know the timeline the state is going to use, but did not have an update on when he will host a committee meeting. The House is currently in recess for the summer, but could return at any time under the call of Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Peach Bottom).

The timeline to call lawmakers back is still being determined, as discussion with lawmakers on the legislative election fixes are still ongoing, Cutler’s spokesperson said.

“There is an understanding that as our election law exists right now, that if we don't do some of the (legislative fixes), Election Day will happen, ballots will get cast,” Everett said. “But the question is how many court challenges will there be to those ballots? … Do we want to wait three weeks after the election for results, or should we allow some preprocessing?”