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A lot of Pennsylvania’s election rules are still up in the air with 2 months to go

There are many efforts to change the rules, leading to deep uncertainty as officials are trying to finalize their plans and voters are trying to figure out how to actually cast their ballots.

Julie Hendricks votes in June's primary election in Royersford with her children Aria Gaar, 5, and Aidan Gaar, 3.
Julie Hendricks votes in June's primary election in Royersford with her children Aria Gaar, 5, and Aidan Gaar, 3.Read moreSteven M. Falk / File Photograph

Nobody’s quite sure what the rules will be for this election in Pennsylvania.

And there are just two months to go.

It’s not that the rules aren’t written — there are laws on the books. But there are so many efforts to change the rules, leading to deep uncertainty as election officials are trying to finalize their plans, and voters are trying to figure out how to actually cast their ballots.

In the legislature, long-running attempts to make changes to an election law enacted last year led last week to a proposal from Senate Republicans and counter-demands from Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. This week, state House Republicans put forth their own proposed legislation. And meanwhile, a number of lawsuits in state and federal courts are taking aim at various pieces of the election law.

Taken together, it creates uncertainty around how votes will be cast and counted.

“We’re up in the air,” Tim Benyo, the chief elections clerk for Lehigh County, said of issues like whether mail-ballot drop boxes will be allowed. “Give us clarity in the law.”

And in a state that Trump won by less than 1% of the votes cast in 2016, even small changes in voter turnout could have outsize impact.

Between legislation and litigation, changes are being sought to the deadline for when voters can request mail ballots, the deadline for when those ballots can be returned, the procedures for allowing voters who request mail ballots to vote in person instead, the procedures for handling mail ballots with signature or envelope problems, the use of mail ballot drop boxes, and more.

On top of all that, there are the issues of ongoing mail delivery delays and the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m kind of hamstrung right now, because I’m trying to prepare training materials for poll workers,” said Gerald Feaser, elections director for Dauphin County, which includes Harrisburg. “I don’t even know what to tell them for sure.”

While they wait, officials are taking a variety of approaches.

Some said they’re holding off on public outreach campaigns and some major decisions, hoping more clarity will come soon. They’re hesitant to spend taxpayer money on, say, drop boxes that they might not be allowed to use. Others said they’re doing as much as they can based on the current system — and hoping they can scramble to respond to any changes later.

“While you don’t like the uncertainty, there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Deborah Olivieri, elections director for Berks County.

“There’s a lot of unknown right now,” she said. “I’m trying to remain calm and get to what I can now, and not lose it.”

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania, by mail or in person

Here are some of the key unanswered questions.

Will mail-ballot drop boxes be allowed?

This is one of the most highly contested parts of the election: Will Pennsylvania voters be allowed to submit their mail ballots by hand-delivering them to drop boxes, bypassing the U.S. Postal Service and potential mail delivery problems to ensure votes are received on time?

Pennsylvania law requires that mail ballots be received by county elections officials by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Drop boxes allow voters to hand-deliver those ballots and know they were received on time.

President Donald Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee, and a group of the state’s Republican members of Congress sued in June to block drop boxes, citing concerns that the boxes could allow voter fraud. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare, and mail-ballot drop boxes are designed to prevent tampering and are widely used in other states.

Democrats sued back, asking for drop boxes to be explicitly allowed.

Proposals by Republican lawmakers also appear to block drop boxes.

Thousands of voters used drop boxes in the June 2 Pennsylvania primary, and officials expect them to be popular again — if they’re allowed.

» READ MORE: Pa. GOP advances election bill that would ban drop boxes, get mail-in ballots to voters earlier

And time may be running out: The boxes are in high demand, and because they are specialized, reinforced equipment, they can take weeks to be delivered.

What will the mail ballot deadlines be?

Pennsylvania’s mail ballot deadlines are tight — just one week separates the last day for requesting a ballot and Election Day, when they must be returned — and tens of thousands of votes arrived after the deadline in the primary. The deadlines can also deter some voters who fear their vote won’t be returned in time.

Officials have been warning that those deadlines will disenfranchise voters, especially with ongoing delays and disruptions to mail delivery.

There’s general agreement on the problem, but not on how to fix it. Senate Republicans proposed making the application deadline earlier, for example, but Wolf opposes that change. Instead, his Department of State has asked the state Supreme Court to order that ballots to be counted if they are received by the Friday after the election.

The plaintiffs in the case currently before the state Supreme Court say three extra days isn’t enough.

Changing the deadlines could mean the difference between accepting or rejecting tens of thousands of ballots. But a last-minute change could also lead to voter confusion, especially if ballots with the current deadlines have already gone out and public awareness campaigns have already begun.

When and how will mail ballots be counted?

Mail ballots take time to count, and right now that process can’t begin until Election Day. That means it can take days to call winners in close races, as it did in the primary.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s nightmare 2020 voting scenario — and how to prevent it

But with the White House on the line — and rising fears of false claims of fraud or election rigging — some elections officials want to count ballots earlier. The Wolf administration has said ballots should be opened as early as three weeks before Election Day, and Senate Republicans’ proposal would allow them to be opened beginning on the Saturday before the Nov. 3 Election Day.

How will counties handle issues with mail ballot signatures and envelopes?

This is the first year any Pennsylvania voter can vote by mail, meaning it’s the first time doing so for many voters. That lack of familiarity can lead to mistakes such as forgetting to sign the outside envelope of the mail ballot or forgetting to first place the ballot inside the blank “secrecy envelope” before placing it in the outer mailing envelope.

And voters’ signatures on the envelopes might not match the signatures on file, which in many cases come directly from PennDot and are years-old and low-quality.

How such problems are resolved could determine whether tens of thousands of ballots get counted. The Trump campaign lawsuit seeks to reject “naked ballots” — ones that do not have secrecy envelopes — while the Democrats’ suit asks for them to be counted.

The plaintiffs in the state Supreme Court case want to set up a process for voters to fix signature problems, and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh are suing to set up such a process.