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Democracy only persists if we work to maintain it

How Pennsylvania can lead in ensuring our elections are safe, free, and fair.

In 2020 and 2022, our democracy held firm against a wave of authoritarian forces, but we cannot ignore the cracks that have formed due to the malfeasance of unscrupulous actors. The tactics and attempts to undermine democracy are constant and shifting. Our efforts must keep pace in the face of relentless attacks.

That’s one reason I agreed to cochair the NewDEAL Forum’s Democracy Working Group, a nationwide group consisting of state and local elected officials focused on protecting democracy. Over the past nine months, we have met with experts in the fields of election integrity, voting access, and civic engagement.

Now, as we look ahead to the next elections, the group has released a “Democracy Playbook” laying out more than 40 recommendations that state and local officials can implement to strengthen our democratic institutions. As someone who knows that running elections is a 365-day-a-year job, every year, there is no time to waste in implementing these policies.

For example, Pennsylvania should allow counties to begin processing mail-in ballots prior to Election Day, known as pre-canvassing. Such a change would allow counties to count ballots faster, and thus allow voters to learn the outcome of the election in a more timely manner. States like Florida — with a larger population and a long tradition of mail-in ballots — use pre-canvassing to help residents know the outcomes of elections quickly.

As a local official, I am acutely aware of suspicions about how ballots are received, processed, and tabulated. While those suspicions are unfounded, I have a duty to not only run elections but to do my part to assuage doubts that voters may have.

One way to build confidence is the standardization of election audits. No, I am not talking about politically motivated sham audits, as some around the nation have undertaken. When conducted by high-quality firms, postelection audits “confirm whether votes are recorded and tallied accurately — and, in turn, help restore public confidence in elections,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

These measures may seem mundane and technical, but there’s a reason why there aren’t Hollywood movies about running elections. We are public servants who want to ensure a fair outcome where everyone’s voice is heard. We should not be the center of attention. The spotlight should instead be on the candidates and their visions for the future. Our job is to make our elections safe, free, and fair.

Pennsylvania has made some positive changes in recent years. A 2019 law, officially known as voting “In Person By Mail,” allowed citizens to vote early. The legislation increased access to voting for those who cannot, for whatever reason, vote in person on Election Day. It also provided a safer option for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moving forward, Pennsylvania, and all states, should follow the Democracy Playbook’s recommendations by enacting same-day registration. Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., have shown it is safe and secure, increases voter turnout, and does not benefit one political party over another. We should also promote secure drop boxes and prioritize the enactment of ballot tracking measures for absentee ballots so voters can easily follow their ballots through every step of the process until their votes are counted.

Protecting democracy and strengthening our electoral systems is not a partisan issue. It is one reason I wholeheartedly support Gov. Josh Shapiro’s appointment of my friend Al Schmidt, a Republican, as the commonwealth’s top election official. Schmidt formerly served for a decade as part of a three-member board that oversaw elections in Philadelphia.

Schmidt stood by his principles, despite attacks following the 2020 election. He believes that our elections were — and continue to be — carried out with the utmost integrity, and recognizes the important roles of officials, from the state level down to the precinct level, who work diligently to ensure votes are counted fairly and accurately, no matter the outcome.

When it comes to protecting democracy, we made sure that all the recommendations in the Democracy Playbook are nonpartisan. In an increasingly divided nation, the strengthening of American democracy should be one area where we can all agree.

Following the 2020 election, Pennsylvanians saw up close the impact of lies about the election. As officials diligently counted ballots, antidemocratic forces spread lies about what occurred, sowing doubt about election outcomes. Just two years later, some of those same election deniers sought statewide office.

If those elections taught us anything, it is that democracy only persists if we work to maintain it. Pennsylvania can and should lead the way.

Ken Lawrence is chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Elections, chair of the Pennsylvania Election Law Advisory Board, and a member of the NewDEAL network of rising, innovative state and local leaders.