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Testimony on Priority Election Reforms and Rebuilding Trust

April 15, 2021

House State Government Committee

Thank you, Chairman Grove and Chair Davidson, for leading these hearings on a wide range of issues of significant concern to election officials, voting advocates and experts, and Pennsylvania voters.

The passage of Act 77 in October 2019 was remarkably fortunate in that it constituted the most significant package of election reforms in 80 years, but we also could never have foreseen the need amid a global pandemic to allow any voter the option to safely cast a mail-in ballot. This step forward into 21st-century election administration was momentous, but as we have heard extensively from our local officials, the transition has created enormous and unsustainable strain for counties.

County officials now essentially run two elections—one via traditional, precinct-based voting and a second by mail-in—and each mode remains impacted by antiquated statute that creates costly inefficiencies for the counties and risks a poor experience for some voters. As has been noted repeatedly in these hearings, the vast majority of Pennsylvania election law is still from the 1930s. Revamping the entire Election Code may not be possible at this juncture, but the General Assembly has yet another opportunity to substantially modernize Pennsylvania election procedures, maintain election integrity, and improve the customer service experience of eligible voters.

Although there are a multitude of legitimate issues to be taken up in the Code due to its age, I would like to highlight the following for you today as especially urgent to improve the current systems of in-person and mail-in voting.

Streamline Vote-by-mail Processes for Counties and Voters

Additional Time for Processing of Returned Vote-by-mail (VBM) Ballots
Seventy joins the chorus of election directors, county commissioners, and good-government advocates calling for an extended window for the processing of vote-by-mail ballots, the lack of which created such incredible stress on the counties in last year’s presidential election—stress that will continue for each election, large and small, until additional time is provided. But this issue is also of immense importance to voters now that millions of Pennsylvanians can be expected to vote by mail in future elections. States with best practices in mail-in voting have a robust mechanism for voters to correct or complete the affirmation on their return envelope, minimizing the chance that legitimate ballots are needlessly rejected for issues like a missing signature. This “ballot curing” has occurred in past elections but with differing procedures from county to county. The statute must be updated to ensure that a voter is provided quick notification of a potentially fatal issue with the affirmation on their return envelope and adequate time to correct the issue. Some states allow issues with returned ballots to be addressed up to 6-7 days after an election, which would be our strong recommendation.

Eliminate absentee voting in the Constitution to create one VBM option
Seventy also recommends that the General Assembly restart an initiative to remove absentee voting procedures from the Constitution. This body smartly created mail-in voting as a VBM option nearly parallel to absentee voting, but the two ballot types continue to cause confusion for voters, especially given that absentee requestors are required to produce a reason as part of their application. This includes providing, if the voter has an illness or physical disability, the nature of the issue and their physician’s name and contact information. This additional disclosure from the voter is entirely unnecessary. Both the absentee and mail-in ballot applications, notably, include voter identification requirements that would be retained for mail-in voting if the absentee ballot were to be eliminated.

Strengthen Polling Place Staffing

Authorize County Boards of Election to staff polling places
Pennsylvania is one of only four states that continue to elect its poll workers. The Judge of Elections, Majority Inspector and Minority Inspector are constitutionally-enshrined officers with four-year terms, part of a precinct-based election apparatus that may have worked in the 20th century but has become nearly impossible to adequately maintain today.

With approximately 9,000 voting precincts across the Commonwealth, we need 27,000 Pennsylvanians every election to fill these three constitutional positions and around 18,000 more for appointed Clerks and Machine Inspectors to fully staff each neighborhood polling place. These positions are never entirely filled, although in our experience, the vast majority of Pennsylvanians who show up to work the polls do their best to properly administer election procedures and provide a smooth experience for voters. But the inability for counties to recruit, manage and deploy workers as any other organization or business generates a host of problems, including last-minute vacancies, inconsistent training and preparation, and a lack of accountability for performance.

It remains important that polling places be staffed by bipartisan teams, but these workers should be recruited and assignable from anywhere within a given county and directly by the County Board of Elections. In such a system, election officials can better maintain a pool of reliable, trained workers while also ensuring that, in counties with lopsided partisan registration, polling places are properly staffed with individuals of differing partisan affiliations.

Support Counties with a Basic level of Election Funding

Create a state-funding formula for county election administration
Election administration is among those government services notorious for being neglected and underfunded until something breaks. The 2000 presidential election was the last major crisis that resulted in significant federal funding being allocated to localities and states to bolster election systems and voting procedures. Desperate calls for federal support ahead of the 2020 election and with new, pandemic-related challenges for election officials and voters went unanswered. Local governments survived 2020 and are now receiving some financial relief from the American Rescue Plan Act, but it remains unclear how and whether they will be able to sufficiently fund their election operations into the future.

Consequently, the development of a state funding formula for county election administration, perhaps based on voting-age eligible population and factoring economies of scale in larger jurisdictions, could be an important source of support for local officials in conducting effective and efficient elections. This Legislature provided a critical round of funding in Act 77 for new voting systems with voter-verifiable paper trails—investments that simultaneously catapulted the Commonwealth forward in both election integrity and voter experience. An investment in electronic pollbooks, already used in some counties, promises a similar advancement.

Adopt Electoral Reform to Expand the Electorate and Voter Choice

Open primary elections to independent voters
Pennsylvanians were pioneers of the direct primary in the 19th century, a major reform at the time to move decision-making power away from party bosses and towards the voters. The Commonwealth’s primary elections have arguably served us well through subsequent generations, with Democrats and Republicans running to win their party’s nomination in the spring and then campaigning to the full electorate in November, often in a competitive general election. But the reality today is that in most parts of Pennsylvania, deep blue or deep red party registration means that the primary election is the only election that matters, and 900,000 Pennsylvanians unaffiliated with either party essentially have no voice in who represents them.

The Committee of Seventy and nonpartisan Open Primaries PA coalition strongly support amending the Election Code to allow these independent voters to choose either the Democratic or Republican primary ballot in the spring. Such a reform would expand the electorate, guaranteeing higher turnout in that voters currently barred from primaries would be able to participate. This change would also be a response to the growing political polarization in Pennsylvania, exacerbated by a system that incentivizes candidates to run farther to the political left or right than they otherwise would, a dynamic of real consequence when lawmakers need to work across the aisle and seek compromise on major issues.

An Opportunity to Rebuild Trust

Perhaps the most important outcome in seeking to further improve the Election Code is to demonstrate to Pennsylvanians that what they saw and heard around the 2020 General Election and its aftermath do not reflect our democratic values in the Commonwealth. We can do this most effectively by building upon the best aspects of mail-in voting and Act 77, for example, giving counties more time and resources to process ballots and ensuring that voters have every opportunity to ensure their ballot is successfully cast.

Pennsylvanians who cast ballots by mail were, by and large, satisfied customers in 2020, though the experience was not seamless for each of the nearly 3.1 million voters who requested absentee or mail-in ballots for the General Election. Some wrinkles will be smoothed out over time, as has happened in other states where election administrators and voters have enjoyed ten or more years to shift from traditional, precinct-based voting to systems where most, if not all, voters are casting ballots by mail or at voting centers, often before Election Day. Election infrastructure composed primarily of mail-in voting and vote centers is ultimately what Pennsylvania should be striving for, while focusing on the most urgent fixes and improvements in the short term.

Thank you.

David Thornburgh
President and CEO
Committee of Seventy