This fall’s presidential election is coming up quickly, and during every day leading up to Nov. 3, Pennsylvania’s county leaders and election officials are hard at work preparing to administer an impartial and accurate election. And what’s top of mind for them? Making sure that voters can cast their votes, regardless of what type of ballot they use, and that those votes are accurately counted according to law.
In June, Pennsylvania had its first experience with mail-in ballots under Act 77 of 2019, although as a carbon copy of the decades-old absentee process, just without the need for an excuse, it was also a familiar experience. We knew mail-in ballots were going to be a popular option, but because of COVID-19, the number of mail-in ballots far exceeded any guesses we might have had some 1.4 million, or about 40% of all votes cast. Yet despite the challenges, counties administered a primary election in these most unique of circumstances as securely, efficiently and smoothly as they ever have.
With this first go-around of mail-in ballots during the primary and the extraordinarily high demand due to the pandemic, counties learned some valuable lessons about how we can assure November’s general election – a presidential election in a battleground state with anticipated high turnout – can deliver timely results without sacrificing security or accuracy. This will require changes to the state law, though, and time is quickly running out to enact those changes and still allow adequate time for counties to successfully implement them.
In particular, as counties predicted, it was an overwhelming prospect to process the sheer volume of mail-in ballots entirely on election day, which involves verifying the voter’s information, opening two envelopes for every ballot, and preparing the ballots to be scanned. And of course, counties were also consumed with the critical tasks of implementing a successful in-person election on June 2. As a result, many counties were unable to finish counting mail-in ballots that same day.
If mail-in trends continue in November, the number of ballots will be far too overwhelming for counties to process on Nov. 3 alone, and counties will face very real challenges in providing timely results following the election.
As the experts in administering elections, counties urge prompt action by the General Assembly to prioritize a few simple changes to the law that will help them meet their goal of delivering timely and accurate results to Pennsylvania citizens, and make sure that every vote counts.
While we recognize that there are several proposals to make changes to the Election Code, topping counties’ list of procedural changes needed is allowing them as much time as possible, up to three weeks before election day, to begin the time-consuming manual work of pre-canvassing. This means simply processing and preparing mail-in ballots, including removing them from their envelopes, so that the ballots can be efficiently tabulated on Nov. 3.
Without the ability to pre-canvass prior to election day, it may take days or even weeks until final election results are known. Current law allows for pre-canvassing beginning at 7 a.m. on election day, however, counties need to focus all of their efforts on running the in-person election on Nov. 3 and will not likely be able to divert resources to pre-canvassing mail-in ballots on that day. The more time counties have to undertake this process, the better prepared they will be to administer a safe in-person election and provide timely results.
Another change counties identified to alleviate election day challenges is to move the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots back from a week to two weeks before the election, providing more time for the ballot to be able to get from the county to the voter and back again through the mail. With postal delays and public health concerns, this deadline shift will help both counties and voters by creating less uncertainty over whether ballots were received in time. Voters will be able receive their confirmation email and feel confident that their ballot was received, allowing for more efficient polling place operations and aiding COVID-19 risk management by reducing crowds.
Finally, counties call on all Pennsylvanians to also do your part to make sure your vote is received and can be counted in a timely fashion. If you plan to vote by mail-in ballot, now is the time to submit your application, so that as soon as ballots are certified and available, you’ll be able to receive your ballot as soon as possible. And then make sure to return your completed ballot promptly to help mitigate the impacts of potential delays.
Counties have the utmost confidence that all of our voting systems are secure and that every Pennsylvanian’s vote will be properly counted. With a few simple changes, we can help prevent Pennsylvania from becoming a national news story as we wait on results and help counties continue to honor their responsibility as the stewards of our democracy.