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The Caucus

Tensions mounted in Pa. over vote counting delays

ballot counting Wednesday

County workers and volunteers count mail-in ballots inside the Lancaster County Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

About 45 minutes before polls closed on Election Day in Pennsylvania, “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert distilled the weary mood of an uneasy nation into 83 characters.

“The human body was not made to expend this much energy thinking about Pennsylvania,” Colbert tweeted.

That night, as state after state reported election results, Pennsylvania became the red mirage many political analysts had predicted.

President Donald Trump had a big lead in the in-person vote in the first hours after polls closed. But that lead would slowly dissipate over the coming days, as the laborious count of mail-in votes — almost all of them cast before Election Day — gradually revealed that voters in the key battleground had chosen Democrat Joe Biden.

Election officials across the country had been clear from the get-go: opening and scanning millions of mail-in votes would take time. But Pennsylvania’s portion of the uncertainty might have been avoided if lawmakers in Harrisburg had heeded those warnings — and the pleadings of county election officials — and allowed that count to begin earlier.

Pennsylvania took most of a week to count fewer than 7 million votes.

Florida, which started counting mail-in ballots before Election Day, had tallied enough of its total 11 million votes for The Associated Press to call the state about four and a half hours after polls closed — a far cry from 20 years ago, when election problems there held up the result of the presidential race for weeks.

“They had a problem. They fixed it. They operated an efficient election. That’s where we need to be,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, who’s leading an audit of the election process as interim chairman of the House State Government Committee.

The committee’s work likely won’t finish until early next year, and it’s likely that legislative fixes for any problems they find will be ready in time for next year’s general election rather than the spring primary, Grove said.

Some Republican leaders had called on Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to wait until an audit of the election is complete before certifying the presidential results. The Trump campaign on Nov. 9 also asked a federal judge to block the certification. Grove, however, said his committee’s work has nothing to do with delaying certification.

“There’s nothing we’re going to do next week to change (what’s) being litigated right now,” Grove said.

Trump has made Pennsylvania’s delayed results the centerpiece of his effort to discredit the results of an election he lost, falsely claiming the delay is a result of fraud. His supporters have protested at elections offices in key states, first demanding that vote counting stop and then, after results showed Biden won more votes than Trump, echoing their candidate’s baseless claims of fraud.


We were warned

For those who’d been warning these delays were certain if lawmakers didn’t let counties begin pre-canvassing ballots before Election Day, the delay in tallying presidential results this year is a “bitter triumph,” said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican Bucks County commissioner who intimately knows the inner-workings of Harrisburg after spending 25 years in the state House, had been pleading with his former GOP colleagues for months to extend pre-canvassing to help avoid a “man-made disaster.”

House Republicans passed a bill that would have allowed counties to begin pre-canvassing three days before the election, but they tied that broadly supported change to their partisan goal of allowing poll watchers to be dispatched across county lines. Wolf vowed to veto the bill, negotiations between him and Republicans leaders bore no fruit, and the bill died in the Senate without a vote.

Schaefer’s group, the primary lobbying arm for counties and local elections officials, continued to push for a bill with just the pre-canvassing extension, but the House never acted on one. DiGirolamo said he believed such a bill would have passed unanimously.

“There’s probably a little bit of blame on both sides,” DiGirolamo said. “But, boy, to me the Republicans in the Legislature and the leadership ... I was really disappointed that they couldn’t find a way to make it work.”

The impasse came just a year after Act 77 — a bipartisan, widely praised overhaul of the state’s election code — allowed every voter to apply for a mail-in ballot. At the time, lawmakers had no idea that a pandemic would prompt a third or more of all voters in an election with record-breaking turnout to take advantage of the new option, forcing counties unaccustomed to processing more than a handful of absentee votes to deal with a flood of them.

“They had to figure out how to run two parallel elections,” said Ray Murphy, the coordinator of Keystone Votes, a coalition of nonprofit groups that advocates for election reform in Pennsylvania.

Normally, when states expand mail-in voting, it takes a decade or more for their voters to use it in as large a number as Pennsylvania saw this year.

“There is no comparison with any state to have the zero-to-sixty time we’ve had in Pennsylvania,” Murphy said, referring to the rapid acceleration of mail-in voting.

County election workers deserve an enormous amount of credit for making it work, and learning quickly on a steep curve. In the primary, it took some counties weeks to count their votes. The fact that they got that down to mere days on their second try is admirable, he said.


A few simple changes

The post-election delay and other lessons from 2020’s elections show the much-heralded Act 77 could use a few tweaks, Murphy said.

Pre-canvassing is a start, but Murphy said he’d also like to see the hybrid system of mail-in and early voting legalized by Act 77 turned into more traditional early voting. The law allows voters to apply for, receive, fill out and hand in a mail-in ballot during one visit to their elections office. It’d be simpler and faster to just allow them to cast the ballot there as they would on Election Day, he said.

Also, allowing voters to fix technical mistakes on their mail-in ballot, such as a missing signature, would bring Pennsylvania more in line with best practices around the country, Murphy said. So, too, would allowing mail-in ballots that were returned in only one envelope, rather than two, he said. In both cases, the will of the voter isn’t in doubt, but the law disenfranchises voters who don’t get those two steps exactly right.

Some counties alerted voters who made those minor mistakes, while others didn’t, leading to lawsuits and accusations of unfair treatment by Republicans.

“We should have uniform elections,” Grove said. Ballot curing and changes to the pre-canvassing timeline will be part of his committee’s work, he said. “I think everything’s on the table.”

Whatever changes the law needs, Republicans — angry at the state Supreme Court for rulings that pushed back the mail-in ballot deadline and allowed ballot drop-off boxes — said they should be made through the legislative process rather than the judiciary.

“I do think that it's possible that we continue to fix it. The problem is the activist [state Supreme Court] that continues shuffling the deck,” said House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom. “Our fear is at what point will the court interfere itself and rewrite the laws?”

Murphy said the political disagreements that prevented Republican legislators and the governor from agreeing to reforms before Nov. 3 might fade as today’s white-hot partisan rancor cools. Act 77 enabled record turnout during an unforeseen pandemic in its first year, an achievement that belongs to both parties, he said.

“What I hope is that we can see some of the spirit we saw in October that led to the passage of Act 77, which was led by now-Speaker Cutler and the governor — true bipartisan leadership,” Murphy said. “Once the Trump-Biden circus is over, we still have a democracy to nurture here in Pennsylvania.”