Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s top election official is confident that “the overwhelming majority” of the state’s votes will be counted soon after Nov. 3, even as a record number of residents register to vote and apply to cast ballots by mail.
But during a live interview with Spotlight PA, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar also urged state lawmakers to take additional action to prevent the possibility of delayed results.
That relief would come in the form of “pre-canvassing,” which would allow counties to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day.
“It’s so rare that you have a circumstance like this where you have an obvious solution that’s legislative, it costs nothing, it completely solves the problem and it has zero negative side effects,” Boockvar told Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis.
With Pennsylvania widely expected to be a deciding state in the contentious presidential contest, county election officials have for months asked lawmakers to pass a bill that allows for pre-canvassing to avoid a doomsday scenario where it takes weeks to declare a winner. The added time also would allow election officials to identify ballots that were not submitted properly and potentially notify a voter about the problem, Boockvar said.
In the absence of a timely result, observers fear misinformation about the election’s integrity and a proliferation of lawsuits will lead to chaos. But it now appears less likely than ever that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-led state legislature will come to an agreement before Election Day.
The House in September passed a measure that would allow for pre-canvassing. But it would also ban the use of satellite ballot drop boxes and allow partisan poll watchers to work at any election place within the state, leading Wolf to vow a veto.
Further negotiations between Wolf and Republican leaders stalled after the state Supreme Court in mid-September extended the deadline to receive mail-in ballots by three days, so long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
The state House and Senate plan to meet three times this week — the only scheduled session days before Nov. 3 — but no election-related bills are on the agenda.
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said that the lawmaker spoke to Wolf about additional changes, but that the governor was “insistent on not agreeing to many of the security components of import to our members.”
“Given that the governor has not put anything on the table that can get through our caucus and has once again removed himself from the process of discussing the issue, we have no plans at this time to consider changes to the Election Code that will affect the upcoming election,” the spokesperson said.
Even in the absence of additional changes, Boockvar said she thinks “the overwhelming majority” of Pennsylvania’s votes will be counted by the Friday after Election Day. She doesn’t expect counties to have any problem certifying the results by the Nov. 23 deadline.
That deadline has come into sharper focus since September, when the head of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania stoked fears that the GOP-controlled state legislature could — in the absence of finalized results — choose a slate of presidential electors to cast the state’s votes for President Donald Trump, even if he doesn’t win the popular vote.
Republican leadership in the state Senate and House at the time said they had not discussed plans to bypass the results of the popular vote in order to appoint particular electors.
Boockvar on Monday sidestepped a question about whether the state legislature could step in if election results are not certified by Nov. 23, but said she “will do everything in my power to make sure that nobody, aside from the will of the voters, is deciding who is awarded Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.”
About 3 million Pennsylvanians are expected to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 general election. That’s twice as many that voted by mail during the June primary.
Laws regarding when and how ballots may be processed varies by state. Pennsylvania is among seven that, for the 2020 general election, currently do not allow ballots to be processed until Election Day, according to data tracked by the National Conference on State Legislatures.
With 683,123 mail-in ballots returned as of Oct. 16, Boockvar said the state has not yet observed anything unusual. “But it is early,” Boockvar warned. “And we still have two weeks to go.”
She credited state and local elections offices — along with nonprofits, political parties, and campaigns around the state — for their expansive voter education efforts.
Among the top issues? So-called “naked ballots," or ones that are mailed back to elections offices in a signed mailing envelope but without an inner “secrecy envelope.” Boockvar reminded voters Monday to make sure they seal their ballot inside the secrecy envelope before placing it inside the mailing envelope.
Preparations still in the works ahead of Election Day include plans to handle issues related to voter intimidation or other conflicts that might arise at polling places, Boockvar said.
“We need to both prevent and react should there be a problem, but also work towards reducing tensions,” Boockvar said.
Boockvar did not share specifics but said state agencies are working with counties to develop local and state-level plans to respond to any incidents at the polls. She noted law enforcement is not allowed to be present at a polling place unless there is a specific need.
“The poll workers, the judges of election, the election offices are leading the elections,” Boockvar said. “Should there be civil disturbances, protests, intimidation — that’s when law enforcement gets involved.”
Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.