Election officials want a say in Pa.’s voting reforms, but politics may get in the way

An elections worker processes a mail ballot.

An elections worker processes a mail ballot. (Matt Smith for Spotlight PA)

This article originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

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This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Democrats and Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature haven’t agreed on much when it comes to the 2020 election — only that change is needed.

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Those changes will be hotly debated during the General Assembly’s next session, which begins this week. Already, two Republicans have proposed eliminating universal mail-in voting altogether, while some Democrats are again pushing in-person early voting.

But the people who actually run elections across the state, whose pleas for assistance have been largely ignored by the legislature over the past few months, said they should be front-and-center in the reform process — not partisanship and misinformation.

In 2021, they want their voices to be heard.

“We feel pretty strongly that we want to be at the table for those conversations with our legislature,” said Sherene Hess, an Indiana County commissioner and chair of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania election reform committee. “There’s no question that we can improve, and now is the time to do it.”

Central to the discussions of election law changes will be the state’s expansion of mail-in voting for any registered voter. Passed in 2019 and used for the first time last year in the midst of a pandemic that prevented many from going to the polls, Act 77 contributed to Pennsylvania’s record turnout in the general election, with more than 2.6 million people casting a ballot by mail.

County elections officials largely agree they want mail voting to stick around. But they’re asking for more time and more clarity in how to administer the process, hoping to never repeat the confusing, acrimonious, and, at times, downright hostile experience with voters in 2020.

Many Republicans, however, are heading in other directions.

They have proposed nearly a dozen pieces of legislation that echo some of the talking points from the lead-up to and aftermath of the election, including how to address fraud, illegal voting, untrustworthy systems, and corrupt election workers.

State and federal officials have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, which was the “most secure in American history.” Pennsylvania-based judges have agreed, repeatedly ruling against President Donald Trump’s campaign in lawsuits aimed at discrediting the results.

Two state Republican lawmakers, Reps. Jim Gregory (R., Blair) and Michael Puskaric (R., Allegheny), want to abolish universal mail-in voting altogether.

They contend Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrongly stepped in and told counties how to run mail voting in a way that was inconsistent with what the General Assembly intended.

“The year 2020 revealed the current administration’s will to overstep and chip away at our fundamental beliefs of the separation of powers and the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court has rewritten the provisions of Act 77 in a manner that makes them inconsistent and unworkable,” Puskaric wrote in a Dec. 8 memo seeking support from other House members.

Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia), who served as minority chair of the State Government Committee in the previous legislative session, said if Act 77 were put to a vote again right now, it wouldn’t pass, especially among Republicans with an eye on higher office in 2022.

“It’s not going to be acceptable for Republicans to walk out and say, ‘I didn’t see anything wrong with it, I didn’t see any fraud,’” Williams said, noting their attempts to appeal to the GOP base by casting doubt on the way elections were run.

Election officials agree guidance from the Department of State and the court — such as what to do when ballots are missing their secrecy envelopes, how to verify voter signatures, and how to ensure drop boxes are secure — was applied inconsistently, but they’re asking for the legislature to clarify the law rather than get rid of mail voting completely.

“Our goal is to improve the administration of mail-in voting rather than to eliminate it,” said Hess, adding the election reform committee supported mail voting in 2019.

Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), who served as acting chair of the House committee tasked with reviewing election-related legislation, said in late November he submitted an extensive list of questions to the Department of State and all 67 county boards of election. He did not reply to requests for an interview for this story.

“The Election Code needs to be updated to reflect the issues that exist now,” Mercer County Elections Director Thad Hall said in a written response to Grove. “Having 67 different sets of election rules — with every county having their own unique spin on the law — creates confusion among voters and undermines confidence in the election process.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) said he won’t comment on his colleagues’ proposals until the election can be thoroughly analyzed. Instead, he plans to introduce a resolution to create a bipartisan committee of senators to review the 2020 election “so we can move forward in a way that hopefully brings more confidence in the results of the election.”

A spokesperson for House Speaker Brian Cutler said he wasn’t available for an interview, citing preparation for the legislature’s swearing-in Tuesday.

Pennsylvania Democrats, who want to expand voter options, said the GOP measures will sow distrust in the voting system and hurt democracy.

“They are living in another universe, and in that universe the election was stolen from Trump, but the election was completely fair for them,” Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia) said.

A spokesperson for the Department of State said in an email that Secretary Kathy Boockvar opposes legislation that would make it more difficult for eligible voters to cast a ballot or “roll back convenient options that voters have clearly embraced.”

At the top of Boockvar and local election officials’ legislative priorities is more time to pre-canvass, or process, mail ballots before Election Day, something Republican leadership last year tied to banning drop boxes and relaxing restrictions on partisan poll watchers. Wolf vowed to veto that measure, and the legislature failed to pass any changes.

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As a result, election officials could only begin the process at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, which led to false claims that Democrats were stealing the election from Trump as more mail votes for Joe Biden were counted after Election Day.

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the election reform committee is hoping the General Assembly gives election workers up to three weeks to pre-canvass, something they repeatedly asked the legislature for last year but didn’t get.

Hess, from Indiana County, thinks three to seven days of pre-canvassing is a more realistic request.

“We just know that we have to be strategic,” she said. “We’re preparing some talking points for the county officials.”

Two Democrats, Sen. Wayne Fontana (D., Allegheny) and Kenyatta, said they intend to file legislation to give election workers seven to 14 days to pre-canvass mail ballots before Election Day.

Kenyatta is also proposing to create early in-person voting. Currently, Pennsylvania law only allows people to vote “early” by casting a mail ballot in person.

Other Democrats are floating the idea of automatic voter registration (people would opt out of registering when at the DMV, instead of opting in), Election Day registration, and establishing all-mail voting similar to what other states like Colorado and Utah have.

Schaefer, of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the group opposed automatic registration because voters should have a choice in whether they want to register. She said they were also concerned it would make it more challenging to keep voter rolls up to date.

Schaefer said the association didn’t have a position on all-mail voting, but thought most of the association’s members “feel some mix of mail and in-person [voting] is here to stay.”

Williams, of Philadelphia, is hopeful Republicans and Democrats will compromise on a few measures, including one he’s proposing to make primaries open to anyone, regardless of party registration (currently, only registered Republicans and Democrats are allowed to vote in their respective party primaries).

“I think voters are going to be increasingly frustrated by the fact that you have to fall 100% in one space or another, and most people are not like that,” Williams said.

Kenyatta said he hopes enough Republican legislators will break with the misinformation narrative and come to a compromise on legislation that will make it easier to vote, and easier for counties to administer elections.

“They have to actually affirmatively make it clear to their colleagues, in caucus and publicly, that they are not going to be a party to this and actually vote with Democrats to preserve American democracy,” he said.

Kimberly Adams, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University, said the misinformation being spread by elected officials is harmful when it’s used to steer legislation.

“These politicians, they know what the impact of the misinformation is,” she said. “When they start creating policy based on these false narratives, that’s when it becomes really detrimental to our democracy.”

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