The Pennsylvania House on Tuesday approved a bipartisan proposal to postpone the 2020 primary by five weeks, until June 2, and allow counties to consolidate polling places amid concerns about the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
Representatives unanimously approved the changes in an amendment to a preexisting Senate bill, increasing the prospects the legislation will be on its way to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature by the end of the week.
The proposal also would make several permanent changes to election law, most notably allowing county officials to begin counting absentee and mail-in ballots by 7 a.m. on election days to speed up the posting of returns.
“With elections only a month away, and positive coronavirus tests increasing daily, we are at a crossroads,” Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.) said on the House floor before the vote. He noted the risk of infection to voters and poll workers, especially older citizens: “Pennsylvania must be realistic regarding the impact of the virus on the April 28 election.”
Some lawmakers and officials had feared conservative House Republicans, especially from rural areas relatively untouched by the coronavirus, would blow up a delicate deal reached over the weekend. After days of discussion, legislative leaders and members of Wolf’s administration agreed over the weekend to postpone the election, then scrambled to write its final language.
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), whose control of how legislation advances made his support important, had remained silent as the deal was made. Turzai said Tuesday that the bill would be scheduled for a final House vote Wednesday. That, combined with his joining the other representatives in unanimously approving the amendment, suggested he will allow the bill’s passage without challenge, all but clearing its way.
Boyle, after Tuesday’s vote, said Republicans accepted the primary postponement but balked at two provisions, one that would have sent applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter and another that would have allowed county boards of election to start counting mailed votes before an election day. Both were scrapped to win Republican support.
If the amended bill, S.B. 422, is approved Wednesday by the House, it will go to the Senate for a concurrence vote, and then to the governor’s desk. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) has said he would support postponing the election.
There has been a growing clamor for Pennsylvania to join several states that have postponed their primary elections due to the pandemic, because voters use shared equipment and congregate in public spaces.
Elections officials have struggled to prepare for April 28 because some locations are now unwilling to serve as voting divisions and poll workers have said they won’t show. Election materials have also been hard to obtain as demand increases for absentee ballots, and elections offices have been hampered by government shutdowns.
Postponing the election until June 2, lawmakers and elections officials said, would give counties time to adjust, even if the crisis has not passed by then. Moving the election would also give voters more time to register to vote or to request and submit absentee ballots.
In another one-time move meant to give counties more flexibility, they will be allowed to consolidate polling places up to 60% without receiving the usual court approval.
That would give elections officials more breathing room to find new locations and staff them with fewer poll workers. But solving that administrative problem could also increase the public health challenge by packing voters into fewer polling places.
Other changes are intended to permanently alter the state’s Election Code, after the state last year enacted the most sweeping changes in decades.
Chief among those is a proposal to allow county officials to begin counting absentee and mail-in ballots when polls open at 7 a.m. on an election day. At that time, counties would be allowed to open the ballots and tally votes, but not record the results. Campaigns and political parties would be allowed to observe that process but barred from disclosing information.
County officials had said the new law, which prohibited counting absentee ballots until regular polls closed, could delay results for days.
“We don’t want to be the Iowa Democratic Party during February 2020 during their caucuses, and we don’t want to be Florida back in 2000,” Boyle said. “We don’t want a delay of several weeks before there’s actually a result.”
Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), the chair of the House State Government Committee and author of the amendment, initially sought to allow counties to begin counting absentee ballots three weeks before an election.
“Some people were a little queasy about opening ballots before the election and the possibility of results leaking out,” Everett said. “We caucused on it, and there was obviously a lot of opposition to it.”
He went with 7 a.m. on an election day instead.
The bill would also make a number of smaller changes, including allowing voters who request absentee ballots to vote in person by bringing their mail-in ballot to the polling place and turning it over to be marked as spoiled.