Mail ballots could delay election results (again) in the Pennsylvania primary

This article is made possible by Spotlight PA‘s collaboration with Votebeat, a non-partisan news organization reporting on local electoral administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s Republication Policy.

By Denise Clay-Murray of Votebeat

The rush to count hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania doesn’t start until 7 a.m. on election day — or even later in some counties.

Given that voters requested 908,903 ballots for the May 17 primary — now pouring back into polling stations by the thousands every day — that restriction means it’s uncertain how complete election night results will be in critical races for governor , US Senator and others will be key positions.

Adding to the delay would again be the lack of pre-election polling, the ability for workers to open and edit mail-in ballots before Election Day, speeding up their counting work. Three years after adopting mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania is among a minority of states that don’t allow pre-application of mail-in ballots, as opposed to 37 states that do.

Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman says the restriction in Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law is a general challenge for local election officials.

“One thing that all county election officials in Pennsylvania agree with is the need for a pre-election when it comes to voting by mail,” Chapman said at a recent news conference. “You know, states like Florida report their results on election night. In Pennsylvania it takes days.”

After Pennsylvania passed Law 77 in 2019, Pennsylvania voters were happy to have the ability to vote by mail from their homes during the pandemic. In the November 2020 election, more than 2.6 million voters chose to vote by post.

But pre-election restrictions forced election officials to decide whether to attempt to count in-person votes and vote-by-mail on the same day, or delay counting of mail-in votes until later.

Election day is “already a stressful and busy day,” Chapman said.

Each district follows its own plan for handling its ballot-by-mail and mail-in ballots. Votebeat sent polls to election officials in all 67 counties about the timing of their counting efforts this year. Of the 20 counties that responded, about three-quarters plan to start counting at 7 a.m. on election day.

>> READ MORE: A last minute guide to everything you need to know to vote on May 17th

Some districts have different plans. Mercer County in the western part of the Commonwealth will not start counting its absentee ballots until the day after Election Day, said Thad Hall, that county’s Elections Commissioner. They count their mail-in ballots at the same time as their military and mail-in ballots, he said. Berks County, north of Philadelphia, is planning the same thing.

Lackawanna County intends to begin opening returned ballots from a total of 15,439 requested at 7:30 am. Although they won’t be separated from their envelopes and scanned until 1:30 p.m., the county expects to complete the count by 6 a.m., said Elizabeth Hopkins, the county elections commissioner.

Jefferson County has received just 1,671 mail-in ballot applications for the primary, so all ballots returned by Election Day should be counted by noon, officials said.

In Philadelphia, where 104,465 absentee ballots were requested, temp workers are joining the ranks of city workers tasked with counting the ballots, City Commissioner Seth Bluestein said.

“The workers come in and we train them,” he said. “Some of them come back every year and we train them again. The more people you have, the faster you can count.”

The long, gradual process of counting absentee ballots

Here’s how these workers count absentee ballots in Philadelphia, a process similar to counting in many of Pennsylvania’s other major counties, with variations dependent on available equipment and staff and the sheer number of ballots.

On election day, all ballot papers received by post are brought from a secure location to the counting room. They are checked to make sure each voter has dated and signed the outer mailing envelope, said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, the body charged with counting the city’s ballots.

The envelopes are then fed through an extraction machine that removes the inner confidentiality wrapper from the outer wrapper. The secret envelope containing the actual ballot paper is opened and the ballot paper removed. Once collected, these ballots are placed in a tray and taken to another area where they are unfolded, sent to another area and finally scanned by another machine, which then tabulates them.

The fate of ballots not enclosed in a private envelope, so-called “naked” ballots, depends on when they are discovered. If the envelope that encloses the ballot does not appear thick enough, or if the outer envelope window shows the ballot itself, it is considered “naked.”

If the error is discovered before the count, poll workers in Philadelphia, among other places, will notify voters by email and give them the opportunity to apply for another ballot. But if the naked ballot is not discovered by the time the count begins, the voter will be notified that their vote had to be discarded.

“It’s a very long process,” Deeley said. “It’s like baking a cake. We’ll start at the bottom and build up layer by layer. When all the layers are done, we can actually show the voter numbers.”

After polls close at 8 p.m., the results of absentee ballots tallied up to that point will be reported along with in-person votes, Deeley said.

A true solution remains elusive

While election officials take steps such as B. hiring temp agencies to help count the ballots, expanding the facilities to accommodate more powerful machines, and training more people to power things would really make the counting smoother and faster, they say, the ability to pre-check the mail ballots.

Many election officials believe a snap election would also help stem the suspicion that blossomed in 2020, when the delay in counting mail-in ballots helped place Pennsylvania at the heart of the Trump campaign’s unsubstantiated claims of a rigged election advanced.

Many counties had to wait to begin voting by mail on election day and were unable to complete the count by that evening. In fact, Philadelphia’s count lasted four more days. Spurred on by allegations from the Trump campaign, protesters stormed the counting centers and polling boards, demanding that they “stop the theft” and stop the counting of ballots they falsely called illegitimate.

In 2021, State Assemblyman Seth Grove, the Republican chair of the state government committee, proposed legislation that would give election officials five days to pre-apply mail-in ballots. The bill passed both chambers, but because it included other provisions, including a new voter ID law, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed it.

The proposal has not appeared in the legislature since, either as a stand-alone bill or in a new package of electoral legislation. Grove says Republicans won’t try again until Wolf’s term as governor is up.

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