“Wave of mailed ballots may require changing rules to let counties start counting votes well before Election Day”
Next step towards sanity: Multiple days to vote?
“Randall Wenger, Lancaster County’s chief elections clerk, explains features of the county’s Hart InterCivic Verity Voting system at a demonstration last fall.” (Emily Previti/PA Post)
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Pennsylvania is one of just four states that doesn’t start processing absentee and mailed ballots until after polls close on Election Day. And that’s a problem, because the number of mailed ballots is expected to balloon this year, thanks to election reforms signed into law in October.
Unlike Pennsylvania, the other three aren’t swing states. One is Maryland, where voters can mail ballots without an excuse (as in Pa.); the other two are Massachusetts and Mississippi, both of which only allow absentee voting with an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Ten states plus D.C. start counting on Election Day before polls close, according to NCSL. The rest begin at some point prior: A dozen states let local jurisdictions tally ballots as they’re received, with another 10 allowing ballots to be counted starting two weeks before Election Day.
We checked how Pennsylvania compares to other states in this regard because the issue came up during a budget hearing, prompting some discussion among elected officials in Harrisburg and beyond.
At the Feb. 20 hearing about Pa. Department of State funding, senators and DoS officials talked about changing state law to allow counties to process absentee and mailed ballots before polls close on Election Day.
State Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), who broached the topic at the hearing, told us Friday he expects to get an amendment or separate measure drawn up for legislators to consider when they’re back in voting session in March.
House Majority Leader Brian Cutler, (R-Lancaster) on Monday said legislators are “positioning bills” that would make the change in time for the fall election, if the need to do so becomes apparent based on how counties handle mailed ballots for the April 28 primary.
We also asked county officials for feedback. They seemed to favor changing the law to allow absentee and mailed ballots to be processed prior to Election Day. They said an earlier start on Election Day itself wouldn’t necessarily help, because they’re usually too busy that day running the election to take time out to process ballots.
“We are on the phone that day from six in the morning til 10 that night,” said Franklin County Deputy Chief Jean Byers. “Even if we can start opening early, I don’t know that it would make a difference. Anytime before Election Day would be very helpful, though.”
Santarsiero noted last week that Bucks County would need 10 hours to process the projected number of mailed ballots — 70,000, or 20 percent of presidential turnout — with the pair of high-speed scanners currently on hand there. That means the final vote count for the county wouldn’t be available until the next morning, if counting proceeds at the fastest-possible pace.
Lancaster County wouldn’t need quite so much time, but certainly more than the couple hours that typically pass between the time when polls close and when unofficial results are reported, chief elections clerk Randall Wenger said.
Wenger says the state also should change the process for challenging absentee ballots. His idea is to publish the list of people who’ve requested absentees one week before the election and set a challenge deadline for the Friday preceding Election Day.
Ultimately, Wenger said, if Pennsylvania’s rules for absentee and mailed ballot processing are “left unchanged, November 2020 will make Iowa look like child’s play. It will be a mess of much, much greater proportions.” — Emily Previti