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Letter to General Assembly: Urgent Election Code Fixes Needed for Counties and Voters

August 19, 2020

Members of the General Assembly:

This Legislature acted decisively earlier this year in passing Act 12 to postpone the April 28 primary and grant counties relief to administer the election amid the exploding pandemic. With this emergency legislation and herculean efforts by county election officials, Pennsylvania avoided the catastrophes experienced in other states that failed to properly prepare for their primary elections.

Nearly 1.5 million voters across the Commonwealth cast ballots by mail in the June primary -- 17 times more than any previous elections and a fraction of the number to come in the fall. Meanwhile, county election officials are still expected to conduct in-person voting on Election Day, keeping hundreds of thousands of voters and poll workers safe from the virus. Anticipating historic turnout under these extraordinary circumstances, the risk of disastrous problems in running polls and counting ballots increases substantially without a final set of critical changes to the Election Code.

The Committee of Seventy urges you to return to session as soon as possible to enact the following:

Extended Window to Pre-Canvass Ballots

Counties must be allowed to pre-canvass mail-in ballots up to three weeks before Election Day. Such processing should include verifying the bar code and voter’s information on the return envelope, opening and extracting the ballots, and preparing the ballots for scanning. These steps, in particular, are time and staff intensive even with specialized equipment, which not every county will have.

We are not asking that ballots be scanned or tabulated before Election Day. But with county officials allocating resources to run two major elections this fall ‒ one by mail and another in person ‒ they must be given appropriate lead time to securely prepare ballots for counting. Without this ability, Pennsylvania will assuredly be delayed in providing election results for multiple days after polls close.

Flexibility to Appoint Poll Workers

County boards of election must be allowed to appoint poll workers anywhere within the county at least 60 days before Election Day. For years, local election officials have dealt with a sleeping crisis in staffing approximately 9,000 precincts across the state with upwards of 45,000 elected and appointed Election Board officials. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on the typical cohort of poll workers, many of whom are seniors and most vulnerable to the virus.

Five-member, bipartisan election boards have been an essential feature of Pennsylvania elections since the 1930s. Understaffed polling places in the November 3 general election could impact both voters’ experience at the polls, contributing to long lines, and make it more difficult to ensure polls are managed safely. Election officials need as much time as possible to recruit, train and deploy poll workers to fill the thousands of vacancies they’ve already identified.

Returning Mail-in Ballots at Polling Places

Voters must have the option of returning their completed mail-in ballot to their polling place on Election Day. Due to tight vote-by-mail deadlines and US Postal Service delivery issues, thousands of voters will inevitably find themselves without a reliable way to return their mail-in ballot. Another provision, which Seventy strongly supports, is allowing ballots postmarked on Election Day to be counted if received up to seven days after polls close. But if our deadlines do not change, voters must have another option to timely return their mail-in ballots. Given that Election Board officials already administer and hold completed provisional ballots on Election Day, also receiving and securely storing mail-in ballots is a reasonable addition to their responsibilities.

Even with county officials’ best efforts in the June primary, thousands of voters had difficulty traveling to their local polling place or returning their ballot in the mail; poll workers ‒ many of them senior citizens ‒ stayed home with health concerns; and a few close races took more than a week to decide. The notoriety of Florida and Palm Beach County from the 2000 presidential election are an apt cautionary tale as we approach another unprecedented election in November. Absent these refinements to key parts of our Election Code, we increase the likelihood that thousands of voters are disenfranchised and that the entire country waits for us to determine a close race for the presidency. The time to get this done has nearly run out.

Thank you.

David Thornburgh
President and CEO
Committee of Seventy