This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
In the four years since Pennsylvania dramatically expanded mail voting, politicians, county election administrators, and voters have frequently complained that it takes too long to produce unofficial results showing the winners.
Ahead of the state’s May 16 judicial and municipal primary, county officials told Spotlight PA they have worked out some of the ballot-counting kinks and expect a relatively quick turnaround.
Odd-year elections like this one usually see lower turnout compared to midterm and presidential elections; around 20% of registered voters cast ballots in odd-year primaries versus 30%-plus in even ones.
Regardless of the year, however, election administration is a logistical ballet.
“It still takes the same number of dance steps to complete the foxtrot whether we do a municipal or presidential election,” Jerry Feaser, Dauphin County’s election director, told Spotlight PA.
In 2019, former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 77, which allows voters to cast ballots by mail without an excuse, one of 27 such states. Previously, Pennsylvania had among the most restrictive rules for voting absentee.
The number of people who opted to vote by mail went from thousands to millions. Most other states allow mail ballots to be processed and counted before Election Day, but Pennsylvania did not adopt this practice, leading to a longer wait time for results in 2020. Former President Donald Trump seized on the delay to push the false narrative that the election was stolen from him.
Getting more time to process mail ballots is still a top priority for Pennsylvania counties. However, in recent sessions, Republicans who controlled the General Assembly were only willing to pass bills that would allow more pre-canvassing time if the measure was tied to their own priorities, such as expanding the commonwealth’s voter ID law or requiring stricter signature verification.
Mail voting has remained popular with Pennsylvania voters despite the snags. They are on track to request roughly the same number of mail ballots this municipal primary as they did in the latest one. For the May 2021 election, 800,000 Pennsylvania voters requested mail ballots; this year, 787,000 voters asked for one, of which 420,000 had been returned as of Friday.
Nick Custodio, spokesperson for the Philadelphia City Commissioners, the agency that oversees the city’s elections, said counting every vote will likely take days. The city must also wait to receive overseas ballots — which must be mailed before Election Day but can be received up to 7 days later — or settle disputes over provisional ballots, which people cast when their eligibility is uncertain.
However, the apparent winners may be clear before the county is finished.
“We could know election night, [or the] morning after,” Custodio said. “It depends on how close the elections are.”
Either way, the majority of the city’s mail ballots will be counted soon after polls close, Custodio said, thanks in part to its recent adoption of electronic poll books.
Feaser in Dauphin County said he also expects quick turnaround on mail votes, as seen in past elections. The county has used high-speed openers and scanners in recent years, and Feaser said with that technology he anticipates “99%” of mail ballot results will be posted online by 8:30 p.m., with in-person results trickling in afterward.
“Barring any mishaps, we should be done well before midnight,” he said.
Mishaps can and do happen. Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania, suffered a ballot shortage in the 2022 general election that forced polls to stay open for an extra two hours. A similar issue plagued York County in its 2021 municipal primary.
In April, Lancaster County announced that some 18,000 mail ballots for the primary incorrectly told voters to pick one candidate instead of two in an appellate court race. The county says it has already issued corrected ballots and doesn’t expect the snafu to slow down its count. Last year, the county finished counting ballots for the November general election around 3 a.m.
In more populous counties, which handle more ballots and have to manage a greater number of local races, the process can be more complicated.
Officials in those larger counties are undaunted heading into this election, however.
Amie Downes, a spokesperson for Allegheny County, said election administrators count mail ballots at a central warehouse and have scanners at individual precincts that can upload in-person results.
“There are over 1,000 candidates on these ballots because of the 130 municipalities and 43 school districts,” Downes said. “The municipal election is far more complicated, but the ‘counting’ process is the same.”
Pennsylvania’s counties tallied the results of the 2022 general election without major incident. The Associated Press, which calls races based on the votes tallied and those remaining, was able to project the winner of both the state’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races on election night.
Part of the reason for last year’s quick results was a compromise bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Wolf. Act 88 provides counties with $45 million in new funding for election administration while also bringing private election grants.
All but four of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties took state election grants last year, the conditions of which still apply for the upcoming primary: Counties must begin processing mail ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day and continue without stopping, and they have to start counting all ballots at the close of polls at 8 p.m. on election night and continue counting without interruption.
But while results may be tallied faster, without pre-canvassing, the strain on local election officials remains, said County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Lisa Schaefer.
“The counties’ ask for pre-canvassing is not just based on the timeliness of results but to also help counties better balance workloads, use resources, and not have to administer two elections on the same day,” Schaefer said in a statement, “and Act 88 did not move us toward that goal.”
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