Pa. election officials ‘strongly urge’ counties to tally mail ballots as soon as possible

Pennsylvania law prohibits counting mail-in ballots until Election Day, but a few counties say they might not count them until the next day.

A woman drops off her ballot for the 2020 General Election outside the Chester County Government Services Center, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in West Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A woman drops off her ballot for the 2020 General Election outside the Chester County Government Services Center, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in West Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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Pennsylvania’s election officials are trying to make sure the commonwealth’s sluggish counting process for mail ballots won’t take longer than absolutely necessary — and it’s leading to conflicts with some counties.

It’s part of a final push by the Department of State to, as Secretary Kathy Boockvar put it Wednesday, think of “every contingency plan that could possibly be thought of.”

Counties have long known that counting mail-in ballots this year will be a challenge.

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This is the first general election in which the commonwealth is using broad, no-excuse mail voting, and more than 3 million Pennsylvanians have requested mail ballots — a huge increase from previous years.

State law prohibits counties from opening and processing mail ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day. It was never a problem back when mail voting was limited, but now that counties have to process thousands of envelopes, they’ve been pushing for an earlier start so that they can provide results sooner.

That change would have required legislative approval. But a bill to allow for an early start to the count recently died, almost certainly for the final time. The GOP leaders of the State House and Senate have not come to an agreement with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over how to do it.

Now, the Department of State estimates it will take several days to count the mail ballots, though officials say they’re hoping most ballots will be counted by the Friday after the election.

But that’s only if counties work quickly.

Several, like Philadelphia, plan to start tallying mail ballots at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, and will have workers counting in shifts for 24 hours straight until the process is finished. But others, like Cumberland County, have said they’re planning to hold mail ballots until the count of in-person ballots is finished.

A county spokeswoman told CNN this week that “we have three days to start the canvassing of the mail-in ballot. So, we took the opportunity to focus our attention on the election at the polls and then we will switch gears the next day.”

Boockvar said she knows of at least one other county that is planning to hold mail ballots until after Election Day, but there may be more. She thinks it’s unequivocally a bad idea.

“Look, I’m going to strongly urge every single county to start pre-canvassing the ballots on Election Day,” she said. “It’s going to take a while, and the sooner they start, the sooner they’ll finish.”

She acknowledged that even with counties tallying votes as fast as they can, Pennsylvania’s count will be slow. And, she stressed, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the process, or that the integrity of the vote is in question.

“Election results are never known on Election Night. This is not a new thing,” she said. “If it’s a close race in any year it takes time to count those ballots … and certified results are not due in Pennsylvania until 20 days after Election Day.”

She urged voters to be wary of disinformation — even when it comes from well-known sources, like the president.

For weeks, Donald Trump has been tweeting about potential voter fraud in Pennsylvania, typically with few specifics. He has also urged his supporters to monitor polls — something election officials like Boockvar worry could intimidate some voters and suppress turnout..

Just this week, he tweeted that Philadelphia “MUST HAVE POLLWATCHERS,” and that “Pennsylvania Ballot ‘mistakes’” have been made on purpose by Democratic Gov. Wolf to hurt GOP candidates, and that “corrupt politics” in the commonwealth must be investigated.

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Philadelphia already allows watchers at polling places on Election Day. It’s unclear what ballot “mistakes” the president was referring to, but no widespread fraud has been uncovered in the commonwealth, much less linked to the governor.

Boockvar said the best thing Pennsylvanians can do ahead of the election is not put too much stock in social media.

“The president tweets a lot of things,” she said. “I urge you and everybody else not to assume that any of it is in any way shape or form accurate.”

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