HARRISBURG — With 15 days until the presidential election, Republican lawmakers in the battleground state of Pennsylvania showed no sign Monday that they were ready to pass legislation authorizing counties to process mail ballots before Election Day, which is seen as crucial to producing a prompt election result.
After months of counties pushing for the move, the House Republican majority said in a statement that they have no plans to change election laws that will affect the Nov. 3 election.
Asked about it at a news conference later, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he took the House Republican statement to mean that the bill is "dead."
“So I’m taking them at their word,” Wolf said.
Still, Wolf said he still wants to get legislation done and believes that there is still time to do it.
The 11th-hour fight is happening in the shadow of President Donald Trump’s claims at a recent rally near Harrisburg that the only way he can lose Pennsylvania to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is if Democrats cheat, a claim he also made in the 2016 election.
Talks had stalled last week as House Republicans insisted that they only would allow counties to process mail ballots before Election Day in a package with provisions that Wolf has threatened to veto. Those provisions line up with fights that Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party are trying to win in the courts.
They include banning drop boxes that some counties are using to collect mail ballots and trying to lift a county residency requirement on certified poll watchers amid Trump’s calls for his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
Monday’s House Republican statement said Wolf “has not put anything on the table that can get through our caucus.”
To try to entice Republicans, Wolf offered provisions to add security requirements for the drop boxes that many counties — particularly heavily populated and Democratic-leaning counties — are using to help collect mail ballots from voters.
County officials are still pushing for the change and say it could ensure the vast majority of ballots are counted within hours of polls closing.
They say that waiting until Election Day to dig into roughly 3 million mail ballots could require days to process enough ballots to project a winner in the presidential contest and erode confidence in the legitimacy of the process.
Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said Friday that election planning is so advanced in some counties that it is too late for them to incorporate the step of processing ballots before Election Day at this point.
But, she said, other counties are still hoping for the authorization.
Eugene DiGirolamo, a Republican county commissioner in Bucks County, the state's fourth-most populous county, said processing the ballots early is a “critical issue, not only for Bucks, but I would imagine for a lot of the other counties around the state, especially the larger ones.”
Processing the ballots involves extracting a ballot from the two envelopes it arrives in, flattening and scanning it, but not officially tabulating it until polls close.
Getting five to seven days before the election to accomplish all that is ideal, DiGirolamo said.
“I’d only be guessing, but my guess is if we’re only allowed to start on Election Day, it's going to be three, four, five days after the election when we’ll have these things scanned and counted,” DiGirolamo said. “I am just scared to death that Pennsylvania is going to look really bad, especially if the election for president is close and they’re waiting for results from the battleground states like Pennsylvania truly is.”
Trump campaign officials say they don’t have enough poll watchers in some counties, including Philadelphia, a Democratic bastion that Trump has repeatedly suggested needs to be watched for election fraud.
Trump’s campaign has said that processing ballots before Election Day “must, at the very least, be a transparent process with a poll watcher in the room to ensure all rules are followed.”