Elections Government

PA House Answers County Election Officials’ Request For More Time To Count Mail-In Ballots

The bill now goes to the state Senate.

By Peter Hall | Pennsylvania Capital-Star

An election worker prepares mail-in ballots. Credit: Matt Smith/Spotlight PA

With all eyes turned to Pennsylvania for the 2024 presidential election, county election workers would be able to start processing mail-in ballots up to a week before Election Day under legislation that passed the state House on Wednesday.

Republicans, who supported early processing of mail-in ballots in past election reform measures, opposed the bill passed Wednesday in a 102-99 party-line vote. The bill now goes to the GOP-controlled state Senate for consideration. Levittown-area state representatives Tina Davis and Jim Prokopiak, both Democrats, voted in favor, while Republican State Rep. Joe Hogan voted against it.

House Bill 847 extends the period in which county election officials may open and electronically scan vote-by-mail ballots, which currently begins at 7 a.m. on Election Day. State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre), the bill’s prime sponsor, said the legislation was requested by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

“Here’s what they said: Pre-canvassing is the most important change that would significantly improve the election experience. For both counties and voters without sacrificing … ballot security,” Conklin said.

The bill would allow election workers to open the secrecy envelopes containing mail-in ballots and scan the ballots up to seven days before Election Day. Tabulation of the results from mail-in ballots would not be performed until after polls close and the process would be witnessed by representatives of each candidate and each party. 

Observers and participants in the process would be barred from disclosing the results before in-person voting has concluded, although lawmakers who opposed the bill noted that it carries no penalty for doing so.

While voting by mail has been an option for decades for people who are away from home or otherwise can’t make it to the polls on Election Day via absentee ballots, Act 77 made voting by mail an option for any qualified voter without an excuse for the first time in 2020.

That year, delays counting mail-in ballots meant that the winner of Pennsylvania’s presidential election was uncertain for days after polls closed. That provided grist for conspiracy theorists who echoed former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he had only lost the welection because of ballot fraud.

“This will not change the election, Pennsylvania will be standing as a shining star because they will know that conspiracy theories that come out will not work. So I’m asking you for a yes vote,” Conklin said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Wednesday that he was pleased that the House had acted on the requests of Republican and Democratic county election officials.

“I hope the Senate will follow suit and send this simple, bipartisan reform to improve our elections to my desk so I can sign it into law,” the tweet said.

Shapiro’s administration also oversaw the redesign of mail-in ballots for the 2024 election, intended to reduce confusion among voters who have written the wrong dates on return envelopes or omitted the date altogether. 

A sweeping election reform bill backed by Republican lawmakers that passed both chambers of the Legislature in 2021 included additional time to prepare to mail-in ballots for counting. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill because it also required voters to show ID every time they vote, which Wolf said would restrict freedom to vote.

House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said that the pre-canvassing bill under consideration Wednesday would compound the problems election workers face during the transition from election preparation to Election Day by making them overlap. Cutler also noted that counties across the state have experienced other election problems that require attention.

Cutler cited incorrectly prepared touch screen voting machines in Northampton County in 2023 and polling places that ran out of paper for voting machines in Luzerne County in 2022, among others.

“These are the real problems that voters have called me about and I think that they’ve been well publicized … I think that Pennsylvanians have said consistently, they want to restore trust and faith in our election systems,” Cutler said, adding that other election reform measures such as voter ID and pollbook signature matching have similar support as early canvassing.

Urging support for the bill, Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) recalled the “horrible months” after the 2020 election, when members of the Pennsylvania Legislature proposed “bogus audits” of the results, amplified false claims that voting machines were rigged and the horror of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“The idea that pre-canvassing is a Democrat or Republican issue is shameless,” Bradford said. “This is simply about giving people timely results in an election so we don’t have what we had in 2020 — the mindless conspiracies, the election denialism.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pennsylvania Capital-Star

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