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State’s Election Official Answers Your Questions About Misinformation, Voting Machines & More

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This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. Sign up for Votebeat’s free newsletters here.

By Carter Walker of Votebeat

Secretary of the Commonwealth, Al Schmidt speaking at a 2023 press conference. Credit: PA Internet News Service

Ahead of the April 23 primary, Pennsylvania’s top election official answered your questions about misinformation, voting machine security, and more.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt joined Spotlight PA’s Kate Huangpu and Votebeat’s Carter Walker in March for a live event about building trust in elections. If you missed it, you can watch the conversation here.

Below are Schmidt’s answers to some of the questions asked during the event, as well as answers he sent via email to five of the questions we couldn’t get to.

Read his responses below, some of which have been condensed for space and clarity:

You called the departure of experienced local voting officials one of the biggest threats to our election. Can you talk a bit about the department’s new training for election officials? —Carter Walker, Votebeat

One of the biggest challenges that we’re facing not just in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but across the country is the turnover among the people responsible for running elections at the county level.

More than 70 have left in Pennsylvania since 2020 — and that’s a lot. And when you have people running elections, who have had little experience running elections, they’re more likely to make a mistake in election administration.

But when they do make mistakes, they’re interpreted as being intentional or malicious, or seeking to alter the outcome of the election for or against a candidate or campaign.

So the Department of State has created this year a new training team to provide training to election administrators across the commonwealth. Our sessions usually have between 50 and 100 election administrators at senior levels participating: ones who have been around for decades and ones who are brand new. It’s a service the Department of State is providing to make sure that newer people know what to do and what to prepare for.

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the Election Threats Task Force, describing its role, its members, the information that’s being shared and how that will translate on Election Day. —Kate Huangpu, Spotlight PA

The Elections Threat Task Force is mainly designed to improve communication among people responsible for running elections and people responsible for law enforcement in the event we encounter any sort of ugliness like we encountered in 2020, and off and on, since 2020.

When all that came about in 2020 — and I was running elections at the county level and was on the receiving end of death threats, targeting myself and primarily targeting my family, targeting my young kids — we had to scramble to figure out what to do and how best to respond.

So the main purpose is to really open up lines of communications, to understand what everybody’s role is when it comes to running elections and when it comes to law enforcement.

Mis- and disinformation were a major source of confusion and interference in the 2020 election. I was hoping you could talk a bit about how the department is going to address those issues this year. —Carter Walker, Votebeat

Part of it is to make sure that you’re telling the truth about elections.

For me, it’s not about going back and forth with different parties and different people. It’s not about subjective differences of opinion on elections. It’s about whenever you encounter things that are categorically untrue, empirically untrue.

I think it’s a matter of understanding what questions are out there. And then when we do encounter things that are untrue, that are are intended to mislead voters from the truth about elections, then we need to make sure that we’re telling the truth about elections — that we provide accurate information.

It’s not about going back and forth. It’s not about arguing. It’s about telling the truth about elections and doing our part to make sure that voters are informed consumers of accurate, truthful election information.

How is the state making sure all voting machines are certified and up to date? What does that process look like, and who is responsible? —Glenn H., submitted question

All voting systems used in Pennsylvania are certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and examined and approved for use by my office. The certification reports are located on the department’s website, and the department refers to those documents as best reflecting the initial certification process. To verify that the voting systems are working as expected in each election, all counties are required to conduct pre-election logic and accuracy (L&A) testing. We have directed that all counties certify their completion of L&A testing to the department, and the process for conducting that testing is provided for in the directive.

What is being done by each county voter registration department to investigate, then confirm or reject, the authenticity of claims to United States citizenship via a mere checkmark on voter applications? —Paul S., submitted question

All counties must undertake the verification processes outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), including through checks in state and federal databases. A federal court recently dismissed a challenge to the department’s directive regarding these HAVA checks.

Editor’s Note: Schmidt is referring to a lawsuit brought by state Rep. Dawn Keefer (R., York) and the Pennsylvania House Freedom Caucus, which challenged — along with other issues — how the state handles identification checks for military and overseas voters under the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

How does the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision on undated mail-in ballots in PA affect voters who choose that option, and, ultimately, how will it affect the process of counting votes and the election results? Please clarify how mail-in ballots that lack a date on the outside envelope or other information lapses will be handled. —Nell M., submitted question

Our guidance on undated and incorrectly dated ballots remains unchanged pending any further legal developments: All voters must sign and write the current date on their outer envelope in order to have their vote counted.

The Department of State believes every vote by a qualified voter should be counted, and we are continuing to work to ensure that is the case in Pennsylvania. To that end, the department has made significant proactive improvements to mail ballot materials designed to cut down on undated or misdated mail ballot envelopes. Among the changes on the redesigned mail ballot materials — which have been implemented for the 2024 primary election — are revised instructions to voters to make the process of properly filling out and returning a mail ballot clearer and more direct. These revisions are designed to decrease the number of voter errors that could cause them to be disenfranchised.

Additionally, the department is encouraging counties to employ processes to provide notice to voters of signing and dating errors so that voters have a chance to correct them and ensure their vote is counted.

What is the status of the vote curing process? Is it currently inconsistent at the county level? Is that still in court? —Jim Leous, submitted question

Counties are permitted but not required to alert voters who have made minor errors, such as neglecting to date their outer envelope, so that voters can correct these issues to allow their ballot to be counted. We encourage all counties to employ such processes so that all qualified voters can have their vote counted. The department is unaware of any active litigation regarding any county’s practice with respect to this process.

I know the machines are solid. I was wondering if reiterated (or further) instructions would be provided about chain of custody of USB drives, etc. —Susan Fudurich, submitted question

Our department’s lauded Election Directors Training Team has covered and will continue to cover important Election Day topics, including best practices for storage and management of critical election infrastructure. The department also refers you to the Conditions of Certification included in each voting system certification report, which may specify additional enumerated chain of custody procedures.

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