Pa. lawmakers agreed to a big election funding deal — with strings attached

Jonathan Lai of The Inquirer and Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA
Pennsylvania lawmakers have agreed to give counties $45 million in new election funding as part of the state budget.

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania lawmakers agreed to give counties $45 million in new election funding as part of the state budget, a move that — if successful and it continues into future years — could significantly change how elections are funded and run in the state.

Jerry Feaser, elections director for Dauphin County, said any extra state funding generally is “laudable and would be very helpful.”

But the strings attached to that new funding stream prompted mixed reactions from county election officials who would now have to decide whether to apply for the funding and accept those requirements.

“It’s ill-conceived legislation that, really, it’s just awful. If they wanted to give us more money, they should have just given us more money, no strings,” said Philadelphia elections chief Lisa Deeley.

The legislation creating the new grants would also ban private election funding — something Republicans have sought to do since some counties received grants in 2020. The bill passed the state Senate by a broad 46-4 vote but proved a tougher sell in the state House, where a combination of opposition from conservative Republicans and most Democratic lawmakers meant a slim 103-96 margin.

For many county election officials, the major issue — as it has been since 2020 — was the counting of mail ballots.

Counties are currently allowed to begin counting ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, creating a massive amount of pressure as they scramble to get votes counted and reported as quickly as possible. Election administrators across the state have been pleading for the ability to begin the “pre-canvassing” process of opening and scanning mail ballots earlier, alleviating some of that pressure.

The election funding legislation wouldn’t allow that. But it would require counties that accept the funding to begin counting ballots at 7 a.m. and “continue without interruption” until the count is complete.

“Requiring election workers to work 72 or more hours straight is an unsustainable model — and one that only invites errors to be made,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and chief clerk. “Following the lead of other states that successfully pre-canvass ballots prior to Election Day is the reasonable and responsible way to go.”

State funding of elections would be new for Pennsylvania

Counties run elections, and county governments fund their election offices. As election costs have grown — especially since the law known as Act 77 allowed any voter to use mail ballots — chronically underfunded election offices have pleaded for money.

The state doesn’t get involved much in the regular funding of elections, limiting itself normally to funding specific efforts, such as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s order that counties replace their voting machines prior to the 2020 election; reimbursing counties for special elections or recounts, as required by state law; or distributing federal grant money.

An infusion of $45 million of state funding could be a major change.

“Securing election funding has been one of our top priorities, and $45 million is absolutely a significant and unheard-of-before investment from the state,” said Lisa Schaefer, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

County election officials generally echoed that, though some worried their counties might decrease the county’s share of the funds, offsetting the money.

Under the deal, the state would set aside $45 million each year to reimburse counties in a new “election integrity grant program.”

Counties could apply for grants by Aug. 15, and each county’s allotment would be based on their share of the state’s registered voters in the previous primary election.

The $45 million total is about $5.15 per registered voter. The largest counties would be eligible for millions of dollars: Philadelphia’s 1.05 million voters in the May 2022 primary would give it about $5.4 million, Allegheny County would be eligible for $4.75 million, and Montgomery County could receive up to $3.08 million. At the other end, the smallest county, Cameron, would be eligible for $15,400 for its 2,990 registered voters, and Forest County’s 3,339 voters would make for a $17,200 allocation.

What election officials don’t like: Not only are their hands tied on the counting of mail ballots, the funding binds them further.

If there’s one thing Pennsylvania election officials have wanted as much — or even more — than additional money, it’s the ability to count mail ballots before Election Day.

Requiring counties to wait until Election Day increases costs by forcing them to hire and train more staff, and obtain the best equipment possible, to get votes counted quickly. And even then, as the world saw in November 2020, the count takes time. And that delays the election results.

Counties that discover issues during the count also have less breathing room to respond to them, and even small errors can have a ripple effect.