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The Pennsylvania primary showed that running elections is complicated — and so is changing election law

Some Republicans in Harrisburg painted small problems as evidence of the need for systemic change.

Workers count Philadelphia mail ballots for the May 18 primary election.
Workers count Philadelphia mail ballots for the May 18 primary election.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Elections are complex. Running them is hard. And Pennsylvania is still building its system.

That was clear in last week’s primary, when more than 2.2 million voters participated in the first non-presidential election since the state dramatically expanded mail voting. It was a test of a still-new system, and there were points of clear failure or acute stress — pointing to both new and long-standing challenges.

Philadelphia had problems using its ballot extractor machines. Lancaster County’s mail ballots were printed in the wrong order. Luzerne County’s voting machines read “Democratic” at the top of the screen for Republican voters. Delaware and York Counties, among others, ran out of paper ballots in some precincts.

Those problems call for narrow, specific solutions, elections officials and voting rights advocates said. But some Republicans in Harrisburg, who made overhauling the state’s election law a top priority following former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, painted the problems as evidence of a need for systemic change. Many local officials said that sweeping focus could leave unaddressed the narrower problems.

“We have to be able to walk before we can run,” said Lisa Schaefer, the head of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “It’s really looking at what we have in front of us and making sure that what we have works well.”

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature are preparing to introduce legislation that could include major election changes. Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the House State Government Committee, has the support of Republican leaders as he drafts legislation to be introduced in the next few weeks. Republicans hope to have changes in place before next year’s elections, when Pennsylvania will have open races for governor and U.S. Senate.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans make an opening bid for election changes: ‘We have a god-awful’ law

During election day last week, Grove noted the problems counties were facing.

“[W]e have a mess all across the state,” he said on Twitter. “The current election code is simply incompatible with a smooth & problem-free election.”

Shortly after, he and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the House Majority leader, called it “crystal clear that our Election Code is in dire need of significant reform focused on accountability, security, and training.”

That’s an exaggeration of the problems’ severity. Elections officials and experts agree that while many parts of the law are outdated or should be changed, last week’s issues don’t call for the overhaul Republicans have discussed.

Using small problems “as justification to make wholesale changes to election law is something we’re seeing all across the country,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the voting rights group Democracy Fund.

Consider polling places running out of paper ballots, which appeared to be the most common and significant issue. Turnout can be difficult to predict, elections administrators said, and the number of ballots at precincts can be addressed by changing a few lines in the law.

In fact, lawmakers less than two years ago reduced the number required, and Republicans shot down a Democratic attempt at the time to increase it.

“This is one that is just very simple and easy to fix. It’s not a sweeping reform,” said Rep. Ryan Warner (R., Fayette), who plans to introduce legislation to increase the minimum requirement for paper ballots at polling places. Grove has agreed to cosponsor the bill.

» READ MORE: It didn’t need to take that long: What Pennsylvania’s election could have looked like with earlier counting

Elections officials hope lawmakers will hear their pleas for specific changes, especially one they’ve been calling for since mail voting was expanded: Allow counties to begin processing mail ballots, maybe even counting them, before election day.

Current law says ballots can’t be “pre-canvassed” until 7 a.m. on election day, meaning the count can drag out for days, as the world saw last November. Starting earlier would mean an earlier vote count and could help mitigate the impact of other problems.

Lancaster County’s mail ballots, for example, couldn’t be scanned because the pages were printed in the wrong order. That means they had to be recreated onto other ballots, a slow, painstaking process that requires three people to copy every ballot.

“If we were allowed to start that a few days before, these are now issues that you could catch,” said Christa Miller, the county’s elections director.

Philadelphia had to recreate about 4,000 ballots because of problems with its extractors.

“We would have been able to identify that problem with the letter opener presumably three weeks ago, and we would have made an adjustment at that point,” said Lisa Deeley, the city’s top elections official. “And we wouldn’t have had to panic and run around on election day.”

Whether lawmakers heed their calls — and whether any bipartisan election reform will be possible in a heated partisan climate — remains to be seen.

» READ MORE: What to watch as Pennsylvania loses a congressional seat: ‘The stakes are really high’

Grove acknowledged his tweets and statement calling for change went beyond what the primary itself provided evidence for. He called it a correction to what he saw as the Pennsylvania Department of State minimizing real issues.

“It is an overcompensation because you can’t just pass it off as small snafus,” he said. It’s meant as a message: “You gotta let people know this won’t stand.”

Grove’s messaging drew sharp criticism from Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, who can veto whatever election legislation Republicans pass.

“Despite some minor administrative issues in certain counties that were quickly identified and addressed, the conduct of the election was smooth, accurate, and secure,” said Kevin Hensil, a Wolf spokesperson. “Efforts by Republican members of the General Assembly to emphasize and politicize these scattered administrative issues is a continuation of the disinformation campaign that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and is a disservice to our democracy.”

Grove said he remains open to negotiating with Wolf. He’s currently drafting his proposal, which he hopes to introduce in June.

Elections officials will be watching.

“There are maybe small things that would be very large things to election directors,” said Miller, of Lancaster County. “My hope would be maybe they can work on those first and worry about the other stuff later.”