County association to lobby for election reform, internet access

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

County leaders from across Pennsylvania will lobby the state General Assembly to make key changes to the state's mail-in ballot process, changes York County officials support.

The election reforms are on one of five priorities listed by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania for 2021, including access to broadband internet, improving emergency services and securing funding for county-level human services and mental health services.

The York County Board of Commissioners has been particularly focused on the fact that voters can request a mail-in ballot as late as one week before an election.

"The (one) week timeline — when you get a request in seven days before the election, to approve that and get it printed and mailed out and back into the election system — doesn’t seem fair to me," said Commissioner Doug Hoke.

York County employees sort ballots at the York Fairground's Memorial Hall Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. About 100 county employees volunteered on their day off to help process ballots. Bill Kalina photo

The use of Pennsylvania's no-excuse mail-in ballots in 2020 catapulted amid fears of the COVID-19 virus, but the statutory deadlines for voters to request a ballot and for election officials to precanvass completed ballots were not changed to accommodate the increase.

Election workers were not allowed to begin opening mail-in ballots, to prepare them for scanning, until the morning of Election Day. The association is asking the General Assembly to allow more time for counties to precanvass ballots ahead of Election Day.

"All levels of government must work together to promote a smoother election process, and as the ones who run our elections, counties must be at the table for these discussions," said Sherene Hess, Indiana County Commissioner, in a CCAP news conference Tuesday.

York County had the resources to invest in extra staff and high-speed scanners and letter openers to speed up the process and ensure all mail-in ballots were precanvassed and counted by the end of the night on Nov. 3, but not all counties were so well-equipped.

And even York County struggled to deal with last-minute applications for mail-in ballots submitted one week before Election Day.

"Basically, they’re making it very difficult for us to pull this off," Commissioner Ron Smith said.

More:York County officials reflect on success of Nov. 3 election

More:Long lines again at York County election office on last day to request mail-in ballot

Smith said he'd like to see the state Legislature move the deadline to request a mail-in ballot to three weeks before Election Day instead of just one week.

Henkels & McCoy employees Kolton Whitsel, left, and Erwin Parson prepare fiber optic cable to be strung through an underground conduit during an installation along the York County Heritage Rail Trail in Codorus Township Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The York County Board of Commissioners allocated $5 million from its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to pay for the the new broadband internet infrastructure. Bill Kalina photo

Commissioner Julie Wheeler has said in past comments that she supports changes to state election law that will give the county more time to process ballot requests, as well as initiatives to increase access to broadband internet in York County.

Wheeler was not available for comment Tuesday.

Broadband internet access has been another focus of the York County Commissioners in recent months, especially in the wake of increases in remote learning and remote working because of COVID-19.

Hoke and Smith  said they're optimistic that there's bipartisan support in the General Assembly to find a way to expand internet access to all residents.

CCAP is asking legislators to help identify funding for broadband infrastructure and support partnerships between colleges and universities, local governments and the private sector.

In the Tuesday news conference, Mifflin County Commissioner Robert Postal said as many as 800,000 people in Pennsylvania don't have reliable internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

"Communities cannot continue to wait for infrastructure that is critical to our economic vitality and our personal quality of life," Postal said.

In York County, the Board of Commissioners spearheaded a pilot project in late 2020 to install a new fiber optic network along the York County Rail Trail corridor to provide broadband internet to people in that area.

The board also commissioned a feasibility study in August to look at the costs associated with expanding high-speed internet to York County residents who either don't have access to the infrastructure or who can't afford to pay for it.

Results from that study are not yet available, Hoke said.

More:County board to commission feasibility study on county health department

More:Companies awarded $6.4 million to deploy broadband in York County