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Will election administrators’ dreams finally come true?

Pennsylvania absentee ballot envelope (Sue Dorfman/Votebeat)

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

It’s Jessica (as usual) but also Marie (hello!), here with your weekly newsletter, starting with a rundown of what happened this week in Pennsylvania, where Marie is a Votebeat and Spotlight PA reporter covering election administration and redistricting

If you’ve been following elections in Pennsylvania, you know that county elections directors have been begging for lawmakers to let them process mail ballots ahead of Election Day — what’s known as “pre-canvassing” — for more than a year. (They’re currently allowed to start this process of opening, sorting, and scanning ballots no earlier than 7 a.m. on Election Day.) But it’s been a sticking point in Harrisburg, where last year, negotiations between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republicans who control the legislature stalled when the parties couldn’t agree to allow pre-canvassing in exchange for bans on drop boxes and fewer limitations on where poll workers were allowed. 

In November, as Election Day stretched into election week and county staff worked around the clock to count hundreds of thousands of mail ballots, then-President Donald Trump and conservative Pennsylvania Republicans seized on the opportunity, sowing doubt about the validity of the ballots and the integrity of the election officials tasked with processing those ballots. 

Pennsylvania Republicans say they want timely results on Election Day, but their latest proposal gives counties five days of pre-canvassing, which some elections directors say isn’t enough time. In many states, election workers are allowed weeks of pre-canvassing. Last year, for example, North Carolina began the process on Sept. 29 for the November election, Ohio began on Oct. 6, and Florida began on Oct. 12. 

Even the legislature’s own Election Law Advisory Board — made up of county elections directors, commissioners, state lawmakers, advocates, and lawyers — thinks five days isn’t enough time and recommended Thursday to give counties up to 14 days to process mail ballots.

They also discussed how long counties could wait to begin counting mail ballots — last year, some counties said they needed to focus on Election Day operations and didn’t start going through mail ballots until days later, further delaying results. Most members of the advisory board agreed that some deadline on Election Day or the day after was necessary.

“The longer we go without having this in statute,” Northampton County Elections Director Amy Cozze said, “the harder you are making our lives.”

Now for some history. The idea of voter registration became popular in the 1830s as a result of the Whig Party’s repeated claims that ineligible voters and noncitizens were casting ballots for Democratic candidates. Pennsylvania passed its registration law in 1836, which required “assessors” in Philadelphia (yes, just Philadelphia) to go door to door, building rolls of eligible voters. While it was meant to be — and this might sound familiar to you — an anti-fraud measure, critics said it disproportionately disenfranchised the poor, who were likely not home when the assessor came around and who didn’t have fancy brass name plates on their doors, which the assessor routinely used to verify a voter’s home address. A year later, Philadelphia’s delegates to the state legislature introduced a bill that would have provided for uniform registration requirements across the state, but it was rejected by rural representatives. 

Back to modern times. 

  • Besides Pennsylvania’s new pre-canvassing provision, the election-reform legislation Republicans introduced in the House this week includes many, many more proposals to change the state’s election rules. The massive bill is a mixed bag of measures that would restrict voting access in some respects — such as a new voter ID requirement — and expand voting in other respects — such as offering early in-person voting. It also would change some logistical aspects of elections — such as tighter voter-registration and ballot-request deadlines — that should make elections smoother but whose potential effects on voters should be carefully assessed. Marie has a full rundown of the bill, and we’ll be taking a closer look at its most important provisions over the coming days and weeks.
  • Democrats are apparently just now realizing that Joe Manchin was never going to vote for HR 1, but it took him writing an op-ed for his local West Virginia newspaper saying so in black and white. They are now scrambling to produce any movement at all on voting rights, having wasted months trying to force Manchin to love the bill. Meanwhile, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act faces a difficult road ahead, as Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week deemed it “unnecessary.” 
  • New details about violent threats made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his family reveal just how severely he and other elections officials have been terrorized by Trump-inspired extremists. “You and your family will be killed very slowly,” read one text message sent to Raffensperger’s wife in April. And the intimidation toward election figures continues to this day, including in Arizona and Michigan, with nary a word of discouragement from the man who inspired it in the first place.
  • The Arizona “audit” continues, and lawmakers from states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Georgia have made visits to the arena where Cyber Ninjas is operating, resulting in renewed speculation that similar partisan audits might spread to other states. Meanwhile, elections experts have sent the company a “put up or shut up” challenge. Per the Arizona Republic, “The experts say that if the Senate selects a box of unopened ballots (any box), the team could within minutes provide an accurate count of each race on all 1,000 or so ballots inside — without ever opening it.” It would rely on ballot tabulation spreadsheets produced by the secretary of state, performing a faster, cheaper alternative to Cyber Ninja’s extensive and awkward process of spinning turntables and counting ballots by hand. 
  • Representatives in Rhode Island have introduced a measure that would require the Secretary of State’s office to conduct a cybersecurity assessment of elections infrastructure to prevent cyberintrusions and mitigate future risk. 
  • The Wisconsin Senate, controlled by Republicans, passed a measure that would limit drop boxes, require more paperwork for casting an absentee ballot, and require more disabled voters to show ID when casting a ballot by mail. It will almost certainly be vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor. 
  • The high number of provisional ballots cast during the local elections in Lowndes County, Mississippi, this month has raised eyebrows, with local candidates telling the press they fear voters unknowingly may have been purged from the registration rolls. County election officials have said the provisional ballots resulted from confusion by voters who may have been assigned to different precincts for local races than for state or federal races and tried to vote in the wrong place. 
  • Texas Democrats who walked off the floor of the legislature last week to prevent the state’s restrictive voting bill from passing will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday to talk about the party’s voting rights strategy.

Folks, let’s talk about hobbies. If you work in elections, we need you to share yours. In this newsletter, we have featured a surfboard maker who lives in Kentucky, a quilter who lives in Arizona, a competitive cyclist in Massachusetts, a fabulous home chef in Georgia, and a skydiver in Missouri — and more! Do you have a fascinating hobby? Do you want to tell us about it? Please do so in this convenient form

AND FINALLY! We are doing a flippin cool event on June 29, which you can register for here. Ballot Battle will feature Securing Democracy cybersecurity expert Maurice Turner, Barnard College poli sci professor Michael Miller, and Reed College poli sci professor Paul Gronke (and Jessica), all of whom have come up with quiz bowl questions to see who knows the most about elections. Our top three winners will receive a prize in the form of a quite fancy pillow, courtesy of One Fresh Pillow.  

Maurice, Michael, and Paul will also explain the facts behind the most-missed quiz questions in a lively discussion, and any straggling hangers-on will be whittled down to the three prize winners in a (*pew-pew-pew*) lighting round to conclude the fun. We hope you’ll join us.

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