Pennsylvania may tweak new law to avoid vote-counting logjam

HARRISBURG (AP) — Lawmakers may change Pennsylvania’s sweeping new election law to avoid a logjam of mail-in ballots that could extend vote counting in the presidential race for days afterward, a top lawmaker said Monday.

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the 4-month-old law may be amended to let county election officials open envelopes that contain mail-in ballots before the polls close at 8 p.m. The law currently bars that.

Cutler said the change may end up in a “clean-up” bill later this year, depending on what happens during the April 28 primary election.

“We want to be prepared,” Cutler said after speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg. “We are positioning bills.”

The new voting law lets any voter mail in a ballot for any reason, whereas the state had previously restricted mail-in ballots to “absentee” voters who met a narrow set of reasons laid out in the constitution, including job-related travel, religious observance, illness or physical disability.

As a result, however, some of the county officials who do the actual counting are warning that an avalanche of mail-in ballots could swamp their capacity to tally them on election night. Pennsylvania already will be in the spotlight as a major prize in the presidential contest, at the same time as many counties roll out new voting systems.

Timothy Benyo, chief clerk of the Lehigh County Board of Elections, said counties have been talking to lawmakers and the Department of State about the changes.

“They seemed very receptive to making it easier for us so that the vote counting can be done in a timely process and not days later,” Benyo said.

House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said lawmakers may allow counties to begin to process mail-in ballots by opening envelopes before 8 p.m., but he does not support allowing them to start the actual tallying of mail-in votes before that time.

Everett said lawmakers were responding to feedback from county elections workers.

“We don’t know what kind of percentage increase we’re going to get in mail-in ballots until we do it. That’s definitely an issue,” Everett said. “Our intent was never to jam them up. It was to make it easier for voters to be able to vote.”

Forrest Lehman, the director of elections in Lycoming County, said the ability to open the envelopes before 8 p.m. on election night is meaningless if the Legislature doesn’t also change the law to require that challenges to mail-in and absentee ballots be filed in advance.

Challenges made during counting on election night will bog down the process, and challengers — usually members of an opposing political party — can easily be required to file challenges days in advance of the election since counties already are required to produce lists of people who are voting by absentee ballot before the election, Lehman said.

Such legislation also would head off the potential that vote counting in a close election is purposely gummed up by political operatives who file a large number of challenges on election night, Lehman said.

Lehman supports letting counties actually count the votes before polls close.

“I think the Legislature ought to trust counties to take those steps and keep them confidential until election night,” Lehman said.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose office oversees elections on the state level, said a month ago that counties already have the legal authority to do some processing of mail-in ballots before the day of the vote, including checking voters’ eligibility and whether envelopes have been properly filled out.

“So there’s a lot they can do beforehand, and we’re going to be providing guidance to counties to break the component pieces of the canvassing process down in Pennsylvania so that even if they can’t count every last vote on election night, they can start the process and get it going,” Boockvar said in January.