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Pennsylvania still has a problem with mail ballot deadlines and it could be worse than 2020

Officials say the deadlines are still too tight for voters who risk being disenfranchised — and a logistical nightmare for elections offices.

Workers processing mail ballots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6.
Workers processing mail ballots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania’s mail ballot deadline problem hasn’t gone away.

Elections officials were relieved last fall when only a small number of ballots arrived after polls closed. But that was thanks to huge voter interest in a presidential race and a big voter education campaign to get people to return their ballots on time.

That’s all gone this year, and officials say that the deadlines are still too tight for voters, who risk being disenfranchised — and that they’re a logistical nightmare for elections offices.

“It’s an unrealistic promise,” Philadelphia elections chief Lisa Deeley said of the deadlines.

At issue is the narrow window between the deadline for requesting a ballot and the deadline for returning it. Only about 10,000 ballots arrived in the three days after Election Day, but officials warn the proportion of late arrivals could be much higher this year, as attention has shifted away from the mechanics of elections.

Local elections officials have long pushed for a wider deadline window. It used to be just three days, which was changed to one week when Pennsylvania enacted no-excuse mail voting before the 2020 election. They are again are pushing for changes, so far to no avail.

“Let’s be honest, [last fall] we were the most important people in the world,” Deeley said of elections administrators. “We’re back to obscurity. Nobody cares.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s 2020 election was really hard to pull off. This year won’t be much easier.

Just one week separates the deadlines for applying for a ballot and returning it. Voters can request a ballot up to one week before Election Day, and ballots must be received by county elections officials by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

“You do not want to be mailing people stuff” on the day of the application deadline, said Thad Hall, the elections director in Mercer County, northwest of Pittsburgh. “Because you know they’re not gonna get it and be able to get it back by mail.”

Each step in the process takes time: County elections offices have to process applications and then print and mail ballots. The U.S. Postal Service has to deliver ballots, voters have to fill them out, and then either the Postal Service has to deliver them back or voters drop them off in person.

It can easily take more than a week between officials receiving an application and a voter getting a ballot.

“Seven days is unrealistic. Something needs to get done,” said Marybeth Kuznik, elections director in Armstrong County, northeast of Pittsburgh. As workers processed applications just before Election Day, she was frustrated with how little she could do to ensure those votes would count: “We said, ‘OK, we’ll send it to you, but it’s not going to get to you in time.’”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania mail ballot applications could get confusing

Elections officials across Pennsylvania, in counties big and small, Republican and Democratic, widely agree the deadlines need to change. They differ on how exactly to change them. Some advocate for an earlier application deadline, others say ballots should be counted if postmarked by Election Day but received after, and still others want a hybrid of the two.

Last year showed the problem — and the worst-case version of how to fix it.

Just before the June 2 primary, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the deadline for six counties, allowing ballots to be counted if they were mailed by Election Day and received up to one week after. Tens of thousands of ballots arrived in that window, many of them only counted because of Wolf’s order.

But the order also caused confusion, creating different deadlines in different counties, and was a one-time fix because of civil unrest after the police killing of George Floyd.

Then came the general election.

Mail delivery delays sparked alarm, and the Wolf administration asked the state Supreme Court to allow ballots to be received after Election Day. The court obliged, extending the deadline so ballots could be counted if they were received within three days of Election Day.

Republicans assailed the decision as judicial overreach and sued repeatedly, with some cases reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. All the cases were dismissed except one that remains active.

The 10,000 ballots that arrived in that three-day window were a surprisingly low number given the total turnout of almost seven million voters. There were more than 14,000 late ballots in Philadelphia alone in the primary.

But it took an incredible amount of effort and resources to get those ballots in on time. Voters were more tuned in than usual. Huge outreach campaigns urged voters to request and return their ballots early. And counties set up drop boxes and satellite elections offices where voters could return ballots in person.

Those resources — and the temporary surge in funding that allowed for them — have disappeared, with counties back to working with small budgets and staffs.

“We will not always have the funding for as many satellite offices and drop boxes and all the rest,” said Al Schmidt, another Philadelphia elections official. “Any outreach costs money. Setting up drop boxes and satellite offices costs money.”

Counties are already having to make hard decisions about drop boxes and satellite offices. In many cases, voters will have fewer options to return ballots this year.

» READ MORE: Everybody wants to change Pennsylvania election law, but mistrust is high

Local officials are encouraging state lawmakers to take up the issue. When the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania put out its list of legislative priorities for the year, the deadlines were one of the top issues.

So far, only a few of the many election changes lawmakers have proposed this year concern the deadlines. And it’s not at all clear — especially amid the heated political fights over voting rules that have followed former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — that there will be bipartisan interest in changing the deadlines in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said specifics on election changes will be determined after the string of hearings the House State Government Committee has been holding for weeks.

“These hearings have elucidated that a bipartisan coalition involved in the election process — from the Wolf administration and state lawmakers to county commissioners and county election officials — believes changes to our election law are in order,” Gottesman said. He described the hearings as “taking a holistic and bipartisan view” of election administration that will guide policymaking.

“As much as we talked about all of it last year, we still didn’t get anywhere,” said Sara May-Silfee, elections director in Monroe County, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “It seems like we’re speaking at stuff, and we’re speaking to our legislators and senators about things, but I haven’t seen any changes. And that’s very disheartening going into a new election once again.”