This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have agreed to give counties $45 million in new election funding as part of the state budget, a move that — if successful and it continues into future years — could significantly change how elections are funded and run in the state.
Jerry Feaser, elections director for Dauphin County, said any extra state funding generally is “laudable and would be very helpful.”
But the strings attached to that new funding stream prompted mixed reactions from county election officials who would now have to decide whether to apply for the funding and accept those requirements.
“It’s ill-conceived legislation that, really, it’s just awful. If they wanted to give us more money, they should have just given us more money, no strings,” said Philadelphia elections chief Lisa Deeley.
The legislation creating the new grants would also ban private election funding — something Republicans have sought to do since some counties received grants in 2020. The bill passed the state Senate by a broad 46-4 vote Thursday but proved a tougher sell in the state House, where a combination of opposition from conservative Republicans and most Democratic lawmakers meant a slim 103-96 margin.
For many county election officials, the major issue Friday — as it has been since 2020 — was the counting of mail ballots.
Counties are currently allowed to begin counting ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, creating a massive amount of pressure as they scramble to get votes counted and reported as quickly as possible. Election administrators across the state have been pleading for the ability to begin the “pre-canvassing” process of opening and scanning mail ballots earlier, alleviating some of that pressure.
The election funding legislation wouldn’t allow that. But it would require counties that accept the funding to begin counting ballots at 7 a.m. and “continue without interruption” until the count is complete.
“Requiring election workers to work 72 or more hours straight is an unsustainable model — and one that only invites errors to be made,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and chief clerk. “Following the lead of other states that successfully pre-canvass ballots prior to Election Day is the reasonable and responsible way to go.”
State funding of elections would be new for Pennsylvania
Counties run elections, and county governments fund their election offices. As election costs have grown — especially since the law known as Act 77 allowed any voter to use mail ballots — chronically underfunded election offices have pleaded for money.
The state doesn’t get involved much in the normal funding of elections, limiting itself normally to funding specific efforts, such as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s order that counties replace their voting machines prior to the 2020 election; reimbursing counties for special elections or recounts, as required by state law; or distributing federal grant money.
An infusion of $45 million of state funding could be a major change.
“Securing election funding has been one of our top priorities, and $45 million is absolutely a significant and unheard-of-before investment from the state,” said Lisa Schaefer, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
County election officials generally echoed that, though some worried their counties might decrease the county’s share of the funds, offsetting the money.
Under the deal, the state would set aside $45 million each year to reimburse counties in a new “election integrity grant program.”
Counties could apply for grants by Aug. 15, and each county’s allotment would be based on their share of the state’s registered voters in the previous primary election.
The $45 million total is about $5.15 per registered voter. The largest counties would be eligible for millions of dollars: Philadelphia’s 1.05 million voters in the May 2022 primary would give it about $5.4 million, Allegheny County would be eligible for $4.75 million, and Montgomery County could receive up to $3.08 million. At the other end, the smallest county, Cameron, would be eligible for $15,400 for its 2,990 registered voters, and Forest County’s 3,339 voters would make for a $17,200 allocation.
What election officials don’t like: Not only are their hands tied on the counting of mail ballots, the funding binds them further
If there’s one thing Pennsylvania election officials have wanted as much — or even more — than additional money, it’s the ability to count mail ballots before Election Day.
Requiring counties to wait until Election Day increases costs by forcing them to hire and train more staff, and obtain the best equipment possible, to get votes counted quickly. And even then, as the world saw in November 2020, the count takes time. And that delays the election results.
Counties that discover issues during the count also have less breathing room to respond to them, and even small errors can have a ripple effect.
Election officials across the state, from both sides of the aisle, have begged lawmakers to allow for pre-canvassing but gotten nowhere. The funding bill doesn’t include it.
“We’re still avoiding the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and that is pre-canvassing,” said Jim Allen, elections director for Delaware County. “We’re still ignoring how so many other states start this process before 7 a.m. on Election Day — days in advance of Election Day.”
The funding bill wouldn’t allow pre-canvassing ahead of Election Day. The requirement that the vote count continues “without interruption,” however, would create burdens instead of removing them, county officials said.
“The biggest fundamental issue I have with it is we should not be taking on an activity that could compromise the activity of Election Day by pulling staff and resources away,” said Mercer County elections director Thad Hall.
Some wondered how much additional cost it would create and how it would affect the actual amount of usable funding they would receive; some questioned whether “without interruption” means they couldn’t, for example, give their workers a break for dinner.
Many counties would likely have to hire more workers and rearrange schedules to accommodate around-the-clock vote counts.
A handful of the state’s largest counties counted mail ballots around the clock in the 2020 election but haven’t done so since, saying it’s too expensive and difficult to be worth it. (Some are considering doing so in this November’s midterm elections, given the large volume of ballots expected.)
Uninterrupted counting, some county officials said, would also draw resources away from the reporting of in-person results from polling places. After polls close at 8 p.m., it’s a mad dash to get results collected and published as quickly as possible, and in many counties, the mail ballot counting stops so all attention can be trained on the in-person election night reporting.
“Mixing that all up, that is just a recipe for disaster. We have polling places closing, we’re getting election materials back, we have staff that’s been working since 5:30 in the morning,” said Deeley, the chair of Philadelphia’s election office, the city commissioners. “But now we can’t stop this other piece of work that has to happen? The whole thing is just ridiculous.”
Election proposals swirled during budget season
As lawmakers and Wolf’s office negotiated the state budget, election policy was a sticking point once again.
Banning private funding has been a top priority for legislative Republicans since 2020, when counties received grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, fueled by major donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
An internal state House Republican write-up of the budget deal trumpeted the measure: “No more private dollars to pay for elections (Goodbye Zuckerbucks).”
While much of the budget passed with near-unanimous Democratic backing, the election bill was a tougher sell for skeptical Democrats.
“They want to get rid of Zuckerbucks? Let’s get rid of Yass dollars too,” state Rep. Manny Guzman (D., Berks) said, referring to Jeffrey Yass, the richest person in Pennsylvania and a mega-donor to largely conservative causes.
Wolf has yet to sign the bill creating the grant program, but Democratic Capitol sources indicated it was part of an agreed-to budget deal with Republican leaders. In an email Friday, Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said that the governor will review the bill when it gets to his desk.
Banning private donations was not the only election issue Republicans hoped to leverage during negotiations with Wolf on the must-pass budget.
State Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill), the chair of the Senate State Government Committee, said voter identification requirements — a longtime Republican goal — were a top priority.
“The issue of voter ID is still very much alive,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t know if it made the final cut or not, but don’t be surprised if you see something on that begin to move in the next few days.”
Separate from the budget, legislative Republicans this week advanced a constitutional amendment proposal that would require all voters to provide government-issued ID before every vote.
Another election priority, Argall said, was a bill authored by state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, that would give poll watchers more access to vote casting and counting and allow them to serve outside of their home county.
Former President Donald Trump urged Republicans to make the bill part of the budget negotiations.
Wolf vetoed Mastriano’s bill Friday, saying it “undermines the integrity of our election process and encourages voter intimidation.”
As for pre-canvassing, Argall said, there’s not enough Republican support to bring it up for discussion.
“I have tried, but we have not yet been able to develop a consensus,” Argall said.
There’s no trust when it comes to election changes, he said, and it’s been hard to convince his colleagues to get on board: “I will keep trying, but it’s proven to be much more difficult than I would have anticipated a year ago.”
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.