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Pennsylvania state House advances bill to give counties more time to count mail ballots before Election Day

A pre-canvassing bill would give counties a week to count mail ballots, but it faces tough odds in the Senate.

The Pennsylvania capitol building lit up at night
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, where House lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that would allow counties to get a head start on opening ballot envelopes and running ballots through scanning machines. (Walter Bibikow / Getty Images)

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Pennsylvania House Democrats are again pushing to allow counties time to process mail ballots before the day of the election. But the effort appears doomed because of the Senate GOP majority’s insistence on pairing the measure with an expanded voter ID law.

A House bill passed Wednesday in a party line vote would allow counties up to seven days before election day to open ballot envelopes and run ballots through scanning machines, though results would still be tabulated on the day of the election. Currently, counties cannot begin processing mail ballots until the morning of the election, which means counties with large numbers of mail ballots may need additional days to finish counting and report complete results.

The extra time for the process, known as pre-canvassing, has been a priority for Democratic lawmakers this session and has drawn bipartisan support at the county level. But efforts to cut a deal with Republicans have repeatedly fallen apart, an outcome that seems likely to repeat, even though this year’s bill is much more narrowly tailored than previous measures.

“I believe this is the time, given that it is a presidential year and no one wants to go through the conspiracy theories,” said Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, the bill’s prime sponsor. “This alone will clean up 99% of what the public is worried about.”

County election officials have been advocating for more pre-canvassing time since the 2020 election, which saw the first high-profile use of no-excuse mail voting in the state. That year, it took some counties several days to completely count a large influx of mail ballots thanks to still-unfamiliar mail-counting processes coupled with enthusiastic adoption of the method during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was during the long wait for results that then-President Donald Trump and his supporters falsely alleged that Democrats were manipulating ballot counting in order to tip the election in Joe Biden’s favor. Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes.

Conklin said his goal is preventing such allegations from taking hold again. But House Republicans denounced the measure, arguing that pre-canvassing prior to the day of the election would tempt elections workers to leak results to campaigns for electioneering purposes, though Conklin pointed out his bill prohibits disclosure of results before polls close.

Lycoming Election Director Forrest Lehman told Votebeat and Spotlight PA there have been no known instances of early disclosure in the state even though ballot processing now begins before the polls close on the day of the election.

A statement from House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the bill distracts from reforms Pennsylvanians actually want, such as expanded voter ID requirements.

County officials have often complained that the legal restriction against pre-canvassing means they effectively run two elections on one day: one in-person and one by mail.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also favors the measure, saying the “common sense” reform would speed up the vote count.

Schaffer added that allowing for pre-canvassing would help counties manage their workloads, which would ultimately enable more timely reporting of results.

“Any form of pre-canvassing is welcome,” Dauphin County Elections Director Chris Spackman said separately.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also favors the measure, saying the “commonsense” reform would speed up the vote count.

“Arguments against allowing earlier pre-canvassing ignore the longstanding pleas from on-the-ground election staff who are the real experts in how to administer Pennsylvania’s elections,” Communications Director Amy Gulli said. “No-excuse mail-in voting was passed with bipartisan support, and providing county election officials an appropriate amount of time to process those ballots should not be a partisan issue.”

Although the bill’s House passage marks progress for Conklin’s measure, which has been stalled since a House committee approved it over a year ago, it still faces Republican resistance in the state Senate, which has long taken the position that any election reform needed to be paired with an expanded voter ID measure.

In that chamber, Republicans control which bills come up for a vote, and when.

“Ensuring voter confidence and the security of elections remain our top priorities,” a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said. “As such, any discussion of changes to the administration of elections in our commonwealth must also include a constitutional voter identification requirement.”

Senate Republicans have been pushing to get a constitutional amendment to expand voter ID requirements onto the ballot since the current legislative session began in January 2023, but the House has blocked the effort. Early in the session, many Capitol observers anticipated a deal in which Democrats would agree to an expanded voter ID law in exchange for Republicans’ acceptance of the pre-canvassing policy, but the bargain has yet to materialize.

Republicans also passed a bill that would have allowed for additional pre-canvassing time in 2021 when they controlled both chambers, but then-Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation due to the voter ID requirements. The current governor, Josh Shapiro, also a Democrat, has been more open.

Historically, the Legislature has not passed election reform in a presidential election year, especially in the period after the primary and before the general election, said Kyler Miller, a policy advocate with the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy and a former aide to a Democratic state senator.

“But also I don’t think there is the political will to enact any change, whether that would be helpful or not,” Miller said. “We’ll see. Weird things happen in June.”

Miller pointed to an effort last fall to move the date of Pennsylvania’s 2024 primary off of the Jewish holiday of Passover. That attempt was ultimately derailed by amendments — including pre-canvassing — that turned the bill into an election reform package, and Miller thinks the episode left the Senate without an appetite to move on election issues.

Conklin said he would reach out to his Republican colleagues in the Senate about his new bill and urge them to move it forward.

Asked if he would be open to a version of the bill that included both pre-canvassing and expanded voter ID, Conklin said “that could be a conversation.”

“But what we’re trying to do is just run it through clean,” he added. “Our only obligation at this time is to try to run it through with pre-canvassing and give the county commissioners what they want.”

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

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