Long waits for Pennsylvania election results are here to stay.
The point person on election issues for state House Republicans says he’s done considering election legislation until 2023, after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last week vetoed the bill he wrote.
“It is over until we get a new governor,” Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the House State Government Committee and author of the proposed Republican election overhaul, said in an interview late last week.
That would leave the state’s election system effectively unchanged for next year’s nationally watched open-seat races for governor and U.S. Senate.
And it leaves local elections officials in both parties across Pennsylvania without the two things they have consistently pleaded for: earlier processing of mail ballots, which would avoid prolonged vote counts as the world saw last year, and an extension of tight mail-ballot deadlines that don’t align with Postal Service standards and leave thousands of voters unable to return them on time.
“We’ll still be in the same boat. We’ll just use the same paddles to row further,” said Karen Barsoum, the Chester County elections director. “It’s unfortunate that there were clear areas that could have been improved upon, that we had basically the whole year to prepare for the next big election.”
Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia’s elections chief, was less diplomatic.
“Because they lost an election, they’re taking their ball and they’re going home,” said Deeley, a Democrat whom Republicans in Harrisburg recently threatened with impeachment. “It’s a sad state of affairs when people who are elected to do the people’s business just refuse, based on partisan ideals or fake stories about fake fraud, or whatever the issue of the day is.”
County elections officials have called since early 2020 for lawmakers to allow them to begin processing and counting mail ballots before Election Day, known as pre-canvassing. By prohibiting that days-long process from beginning until the morning of Election Day, current law creates a situation in which some races can’t be called until long after polls close — and the opportunity for misinformation to fill the vacuum of uncertainty.
Officials have also long advocated for widening the window between Pennsylvania’s mail-ballot deadlines. With just one week separating the last day to apply for a ballot and the deadline for returning it, voters who wait until close to Election Day to request ballots might not receive them in time to vote.
“Many of our county officials say that these two changes that they have called for … would solve most of the administrative challenges that they saw in 2020,” said Lisa Schaefer, head of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
Grove said he won’t move more election legislation because at this point any changes would be too close to the 2022 election, burdening elections officials and confusing voters.
“That window’s closed. It’s not fair to voters and the counties to do anything in the elections at this point,” he said. “ … So we’ve got to come back, see who the new governor is in 2023, and we’ll make another run at it.”
Grove also said he no longer trusts Wolf’s office to negotiate in good faith after the governor vetoed $3.1 million in funding that Republicans said was part of an agreement to fund a new election audit bureau. Democrats have said there was never any such deal.
“When you have a deal, you have a deal,” Grove said. “Where’s the trust? Why are we going to trust him with anything anymore?”
Wolf’s office said the governor has called repeatedly for the GOP-controlled legislature to move on “issues like pre-canvassing on which there is broad agreement.”
“There are other issues that would require further discussion, but it is extremely disappointing to hear that the Republicans are not willing to pursue certain changes that have been called for by the counties which we do have agreement on,” Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections and is part of Wolf’s administration, noted that the first report from the bipartisan Election Law Advisory Board created by the legislature was about pre-canvassing, which “the members believe to be of the highest priority.”
“The report noted that the high demand for mail voting in 2020 imposed significant strains on county election officials who had to run an in-person election while simultaneously pre-canvassing mail ballots,” department spokesperson Wanda Murren said. “The result was a delay in reporting vote counts, and the same thing can be expected in 2022.”
Neither Kensinger’s statement nor Murren’s mentioned mail-ballot deadlines. Wolf has said he opposes earlier deadlines that would give voters less time to apply for ballots, though many county officials support earlier deadlines because they say the current ones already unfairly disenfranchise voters.
Murren said the legislature should approve pre-canvassing without including it in a broader election bill.
“If the legislative majority is truly concerned about the uncertainty and disinformation that spreads when ballot canvassing extends beyond election night,” she said, “then they should be willing to send pre-canvassing legislation to the Governor without tying it to legislative proposals that are certain to discriminate and disenfranchise.”
Grove said House Republicans won’t support such narrow legislation.
“Counties are just going to have to deal with it,” he said, adding that counties should have been more open to the other changes Republicans pushed, such as codifying rules for mail-ballot drop boxes: “They got everything they wanted, and their only comment was ‘Well, that’s nice, but we just want these two things.’ Well, that doesn’t work. Nor do we have the votes for your two little things.”
“They should have been a lot more supportive of [the bill], and now they’re not going to get anything they want,” Grove said. “And that’s on them.”
Grove’s counterpart in the Senate, State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), said last month that he would at least like to pass pre-canvassing and ballot deadline legislation, introducing a bill that focuses solely on those two things.
”If all else fails, I hope we can get those two things done,” he said, describing inaction as “the worst of all possible conclusions.” But that legislation has yet to move out of his committee, and Republicans have shifted their attention to a referendum that would allow voters to approve stricter voter ID requirements without Wolf’s involvement.