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Pa. counties are worried about the rules for new state elections money, but nearly all applied anyway

All but four counties requested their share of the new $45 million in state funding.

A voter casting his ballot in Philadelphia in 2020.
A voter casting his ballot in Philadelphia in 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / File Photograph

It’s hard to turn down free money.

Nearly every Pennsylvania county applied by the Monday deadline for a share of $45 million in new state funding for elections — a significant step for a state that has traditionally left it to counties, which run elections, to fund them.

But four of the 67 counties didn’t request the state money, and many that did expressed concern even as they sent in their applications. That’s because the state grants come with significant strings that counties said would increase both their financial costs and administrative challenges.

The biggest issue, county elections officials said, is the requirement to begin counting mail ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day and continue uninterrupted until the vote count is complete. That will require changes to staffing and elections processes, counties said, in many cases including hiring and training more staff and potentially adding to the exhausting workload of elections administrators.

“The requirement of this election integrity grant requiring counties to start at 7 a.m. on Election Day, to [count ballots] until finished, done uninterrupted … is in our opinion completely ludicrous and comes from people who have never worked on Election Day,” said Christopher Soff, chair of the county commissioners and elections board in Crawford County, which did not apply for the money.

“We’re concerned that we’re going to stretch the staff too thin to be able to effectively run our Election Day activities,” said Daryl Miller, the chair of the county commissioners and elections board in Bradford County, which also did not apply for the money.

Montour County also didn’t request money, and Susquehanna County initially applied but then withdrew its request, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which is administering the grants. (Montour and Susquehanna officials didn’t return voicemail and emails for comment Thursday.)

» READ MORE: Pa. lawmakers agreed to a big election funding deal — with strings attached — as election proposals swirled during budget season

The other 63 counties requested funding, with several county elections officials saying they did so because the money was worth it, though they continue to have reservations about the implications of the rules around the money. Complying with the requirements will increase costs, several counties said, but receiving an additional $5.15 per registered voter will help them swallow those costs — and their frustrations.

The grants were created as a compromise during budget negotiations last month. The Republican-led legislature sought to ban the use of private funds for election administration in response to counties in Pennsylvania and across the country receiving millions of dollars in 2020 from a nonprofit funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. With the ban came the creation of a $45 million fund, to be replenished annually, for “election integrity grants.”

The new legislation, known as Act 88, marked an important change for the state: If the program is seen as successful, and the funding continues in the future, it will mean the state is now playing a significant role in paying for elections, providing an important boost of resources to a chronically underfunded system.

Elections are run by counties, which are also generally responsible for funding them. The state helps distribute federal funding when available, such as from COVID-19 relief money, or for specific state projects, such as Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandate that every county replace and upgrade its voting machines before the 2020 election.

But otherwise, counties have traditionally been left to pay for and run elections — and those costs have skyrocketed in recent years as elections have become more complex. The dramatic expansion of mail voting, beginning in 2020, has meant counties essentially now run two simultaneous elections, one in person on Election Day and one via mail ballots, which comes with a corresponding surge in costs, including increased staffing, new and more equipment, and more office space.

So while counties were hesitant from the beginning about the strings attached to the new funding, county after county said they ultimately decided to go for it.

“It’s worth $300,000,” said Thad Hall, elections director in Mercer County, which will receive $370,348.

The thing Hall and others remained frustrated by, though — whether they took the money or not — is that the legislature once again had an opportunity to allow ballots to be processed before Election Day, or pre-canvassing, and chose not to do so.

It takes days, even weeks, to count mail ballots. Elections administrators agree they should be allowed to begin that process earlier, giving them breathing room on Election Day and flexibility to respond to any issues that arise. Instead, by forcing them to begin on Election Day, the current system means the long process can lead to days-long waits to know who won an election, as occurred in the 2020 election.

Mercer County had previously waited to count ballots until after Election Day; now, the county will move some staff around to start at 7 a.m., as required by the new grants, Hall said.

“It’s still not the ideal way to do it … but we are doing it,” he said.

Other counties are making changes to meet the requirements, too — and wishing the legislature would just allow pre-canvassing.

“Pre-canvassing is a lot less expensive than what we’re going to have to do” to meet the requirements, said Jim Allen, elections director for Delaware County.

Now that he’ll be forced to count ballots around the clock — as the county did in 2020 — Allen said he’s going to have to either hire and train more people, which has been difficult in recent years, or simply move people around to work overnight shifts instead of during the day, which could simply end up reducing how much work gets during the day.

Still, he said, it’s a lot of money. Delaware County is receiving $2.1 million.

“It’s gonna help jurisdictions considerably,” Allen said. “We may have some misgivings about how it doesn’t solve the real problem of not being able to pre-canvass before Election Day, but we have to be responsible to taxpayers.”