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Pa. expects an avalanche of mail ballots. Harrisburg’s failure to prepare is shameful. | Editorial

In allowing mail ballots to be counted even if received three days after Nov. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court handed Pennsylvania voters a victory. But Harrisburg's partisan failures have tarnished it.

Mail-in ballots for the June 2 Pennsylvania primary election being processed at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa.
Mail-in ballots for the June 2 Pennsylvania primary election being processed at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows Pennsylvania to count mail-in ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 6 is a victory for voters, and for the institution of voting. But the practical impact of the three-day extension the court authorized Monday is likely to be undercut by Harrisburg’s chronic inability to do its job on behalf of all Pennsylvanians.

President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of potential “fraud” and “stolen” elections have sown enmity, confusion, and fear about the integrity of the election nationwide. It’s shameful that Republicans and Gov. Tom Wolf have failed to reach a compromise on the very simple task of prepping an avalanche of ballots for more efficient counting. The final futile attempt appeared to collapse Wednesday.

» READ MORE: If you have a mail ballot, just use it, Pennsylvania officials urge

It should have been a simple step: Allowing mailed ballots to be opened, flattened, prepared for scanning — but neither scanned nor counted — in advance of Nov. 3. Counties across the state, red and blue alike, had sought to “pre-canvass” early arriving ballots in order to more efficiently and expeditiously tally voters’ choices on Nov. 3. But Harrisburg politicians abandoned these public servants and the public itself, in fruitless pursuit of petty partisan advantage.

Pre-canvassing systems are in place in more than 30 states. Without these practical and secure preliminary steps, Pennsylvania election workers will not be able to open, let alone tabulate, a single mailed-in vote until 7 a.m. on Election Day. So ballots arriving through Nov. 6 won’t be the only ones Pennsylvania election workers will still be processing after Election Day.

Given that the state and its 20 electoral votes may well determine the outcome of the presidential race, and that COVID-19 has made many voters wary of potentially long lines and wait times at crowded polling places, one might think Republicans and Democrats would have wanted above all else to encourage voting and enable a speedy count. But now there’s not enough time for all 67 Pennsylvania counties to approve and set up pre-canvassing systems to handle the expected avalanche of ballots by mail.

This is the first presidential election in history involving widespread availability of voting by mail, and the first election in memory to be conducted during a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 so far has claimed more than 220,000 American lives, including more than 8,500 in Pennsylvania; already, a far larger than normal volume of mail-in ballots are being received at county election offices statewide.

» READ MORE: People in long lines to cast ballots are also casting ballots for the importance of voting | Editorial

As of Thursday, more than one million Pennsylvanians had filled out and returned their mail-in ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a private organization. Over two million Pennsylvania voters have applied to vote by mail. The deadline to do so is 5 p.m. on Oct. 27.

The state’s voters are making good-faith efforts to do their part. New registrations have been rising, particularly among Republicans. As The Inquirer reported earlier this week, Philadelphia and suburban residents are volunteering in record numbers to work at the polls. A record turnout is expected.

The circumstances of this year’s presidential election are unprecedented, and its consequences likely will be momentous. But what Harrisburg’s incompetence has offered the state’s voters is nothing but politics as usual.