Surge in mail-in ballots could delay election results, so Wolf wants to change the rules
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday unveiled a wishlist of election reforms to address logistical concerns that some county and state officials fear could turn nightmarish on Nov. 3.
He specifically asked the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass legislation that allows counties to begin processing mail-in ballots sooner and count ones that arrive shortly after Election Day. While 1.5 million people in Pennsylvania voted by mail this June, experts are anticipating that number to surge amid concerns about COVID-19.
“I think what we need to do is make people feel comfortable and safe in terms of their voting,” Wolf said at a news conference, adding that such changes are necessary because of ongoing delays with the U.S. Postal Service.
Republican leaders in the state Senate have already introduced their own plan that addresses some of Wolf's and his Cabinet’s concerns surrounding what is sure to be an unprecedented election. But the legislation also contains a provision that would tighten the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot — from seven days before the election to 15 days — which a spokesperson for Wolf previously said he opposes.
Earlier in the week, Wolf said there have been discussions with Republicans about election reform, but the bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, was “not the result of the negotiations.”
“It’s a first pass and I certainly take it very seriously,” Wolf said.
Under an election reform package passed by the legislature in 2019, counties can begin processing mail-in ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day. But counting those ballots can take days, which may lead to delays declaring a winner. For that reason, Wolf is proposing lawmakers extend that timeframe to allow county election boards to begin the process 21 days before the election.
Such a change was endorsed by the Pennsylvania Department of State in a report reviewing the 2020 primary and by the good-government group Committee of Seventy in a letter to the General Assembly.
“Without this ability, Pennsylvania will assuredly be delayed in providing election results for multiple days after polls close,” David Thornburgh, president of the organization, wrote to lawmakers.
The legislation introduced by Corman and Scarnati would allow counties to begin processing ballots three days before the polls open. A spokesperson for the Senate GOP did not say how the timeframe was decided.
Anticipating significant postal delays, Wolf also called on lawmakers to allow ballots that have been postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive up to three days after the polls close. The Department of State made that recommendation in its report, while the Committee of Seventy has endorsed counting ballots seven days after the polls have closed.
The idea is not new. During the June 2 primary, as protests against police brutality spread across the country, Wolf used his emergency powers to allow Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties to count ballots, postmarked no later than Election Day, up to a week later.
The Republican bill does not allow for mail-in or absentee ballots delivered after Election Day to be counted.
Under the legislation, voters would be able to turn in ballots at polling places, county election board offices or county courthouses. Language in the bill would effectively prohibit the use of satellite drop boxes, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which are also the subject of a Trump administration lawsuit against the state.
There are areas of agreement between Wolf and GOP leaders in the Senate. Both sides support moving the deadline for counties to begin mailing out ballots to 28 days before an election, instead of the current requirement of 14 days.
And there’s consensus that voters should be able to serve as poll workers anywhere within their county, not just at their home precinct.
Republicans in the state House, who will return to Harrisburg soon, said there’s “agreement that changes must be made to our Election Code following the primary.” A spokesperson for the caucus said lawmakers will consider legislation that “provides more options to voters to cast their ballots, enhances the security of the voting process, and maintains the integrity of our elections while ensuring accurate results are reported in a timely manner.”
But the statement also characterized the administration’s request that the state Supreme Court resolve multiple pending cases while also extending the deadline for voters to mail ballots and for counties to process them as “an end-run around … the General Assembly.”
When asked recently if he prefers election fixes to come from the legislature or the courts, Wolf had a succinct answer.
“Ideally, in the legislature.”
Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.