York County triples election workers, plans to scan all ballots on Election Day

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

York County officials said they'll begin precanvassing mail-in ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, in contrast to officials in seven other counties stating they would wait until the following day.

As of Thursday, Beaver, Butler, Cumberland, Franklin, Greene, Mercer and Montour counties announced they would begin canvassing and counting their mail-in ballots the day after the election, WITF reported.

Democratic state officials, including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, have said they're urging those counties to reconsider their plans and instead find a way to precanvass ballots Nov. 3.

"Our goal is to duplicate our accomplishment, as we did in the primary, and have them all counted on Election Day," York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler said.

In the June 2 primary, York County election officials tabulated about 40,000 mail-in ballots the night of the election with a team of 25 people working on them.

As of Friday morning, the county had sent out about 93,000 ballots to voters, and about 66,300 of those had already been filled out and returned to the county, officials said.

President of the York County Board of Elections Julie Wheeler poses with scanned mail-in ballots stored in a room at the York County Administration Center Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. The room is equipped with a fire suppression system. Bill Kalina photo

This time around, the county will have 75 people — three teams of 25 — dedicated to opening and scanning ballots, Wheeler said.

But even if York County tabulates all votes and ballots received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, voters in the 10th Congressional District won't know whether state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, managed to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, until Cumberland and Dauphin counties finish tallying their votes.

With Cumberland County officials saying they plan to wait until Wednesday to start counting mail-in ballots, those results could be delayed for days.

In yet another complicating factor for Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't ruled out taking up litigation after the election dealing with the state's allowance of counting mail-in ballots received by Nov. 6, three days after Election Day.

Ray Murphy, deputy director of the civil rights advocacy organization Pennsylvania Voice, said it's not necessarily a problem if some counties wait until Wednesday to count mail-in ballots.

Murphy, speaking in a conference call Thursday with the American Civil Liberties Union and other voting rights and civil advocacy organizations, said counties have had a steep learning curve to adjust to the mail-in voting system and that everyone will have to adjust their expectations about having results on the night of the election.

Transparency, rather than speed, is what's important, he said.

"What’s important is that there is no interference by boards of elections or anyone else in that counting process," Murphy said. "And also what’s important, frankly, as much as when they start counting, is that they have a plan and adequate staff to complete the count."

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Tyler Chronister, York County deputy controller, uses an automated envelope opener at the York County Administration Center Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. The machines will be used to quickly open ballot envelopes on Election Day. Bill Kalina photo

How it works: All mail-in, absentee and military ballots are being stored in a secure room with fire suppression technology at the York County Administrative Center.

The morning of Election Day, the ballots will be moved to Memorial Hall at the York Expo Center, where three teams of 25 people will be working to open and scan each ballot in the county's possession, Wheeler said.

This is where the county's three high-speed letter opening machines will come into play.

To demonstrate how the machines work, Deputy Controller Tyler Chronister on Friday fed about a dozen envelopes through the opener in just a few seconds.

Protecting voters: To protect the anonymity of the voter, Wheeler said, each step of the precanvassing process will be handled by a different person.

After a fresh stack of ballots are run through the letter opener to open the outer envelope, the elections worker will take that stack to a table where someone else will remove the secrecy envelopes from the outer envelopes.

Then, a different worker will run that stack through the opener again to open the secrecy envelopes. The stack then will go to another table where workers will remove the ballots themselves from the secrecy envelopes so they can be scanned into the system.

All of the ballots will be scanned so the information is stored, but the county won't start tabulating and counting those votes until the polls close at 8 p.m., per state law, Wheeler said.

Tyler Chronister, York County deputy controller, scans ballot envelopes to confirm receipt at the York County Administration Center Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. The process informs voters that their ballots have been registered. Bill Kalina photo

Late arrivals: Even with an efficient and organized system in place, York County won't necessarily have a final count on election night.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn a state ruling in Pennsylvania that allows counties to accept mail-in ballots that arrive by Nov. 6, meaning ballots will technically be valid if they arrive after the election.

But state officials have warned there is a possibility of further litigation after the election that could reverse the ruling.

To prepare for this, ballots in York County that arrive after Election Day will be segregated from the rest of the ballots and kept in the secure fire-suppression room, where they'll be organized based on the date they arrived and whether there was a postmark on the envelope, Wheeler said.

The ballots will be kept safe until the courts decide how they should be handled, she said.

"We want to be sure we have these as segregated as possible so when they make a decision, we can be expeditious and efficient in counting the ballots we're permitted to count," Wheeler said.

As for voters who have a mail-in ballot and haven't returned it yet, Wheeler urged them to drop the ballot off in person at the county's drop box.

Or, if they decide to vote in person at the polls instead, they should bring the entire ballot packet — including the ballot, secrecy envelope and outer envelope — to their polling place, where an election worker will spoil the ballot, have the voter sign a declaration and then give them a regular ballot.

Voters who requested a mail-in ballot but didn't receive it, or who lost one of the components in their packet, may also go to their polling place and request a provisional ballot to vote in person.

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