HARRISBURG — Republican legislative leaders say their frustration over the Wolf administration’s efforts to make changes to election law through the courts after they passed a mail-in voting law is contributing to the stalemate over a last-minute change counties want to better handle the counting of mail-in ballots.
County leaders have been lobbying the General Assembly to pass a reform that will allow election workers to begin preparing mail-in ballots for counting — a process called pre-canvassing — up to three days before Election Day. Under current law, counties can’t begin until the morning of Election Day.
House Bill 2626, which passed the state House in September, would have allowed the three days of pre-canvassing, but the legislation included other changes that Gov. Tom Wolf objected to and the governor threatened to veto the measure.
Since then, negotiations to pass additional election law changes, including the pre-canvassing extension, have stalled.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said negotiations were thrown off track by the state Supreme Court decision that indicated that counties could use drop boxes and ordered counties to count ballots that arrive up to three days after the election.
The court’s decision isn’t the only hurdle, he said.
Republicans feel that they can’t trust the Wolf Administration on election law negotiations, in light of moves by the Department of State to seek to implement reforms that hadn’t been included in negotiations that led up to the 2019 election law that legalized no-excuse mail-in voting, Corman said.
Moves by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar “have made it very difficult to negotiate any more items dealing around the Election Code because you know, we had our negotiations last year, we passed a bill, the governor signed it, and since then she’s been in court trying to change the rules,” Corman said. “That makes it difficult to trust her in this process. That’s prevented us from doing anything else around the Election Code.”
Republican lawmakers contend that the election law should allow ballots be rejected if there is reason to believe the signature on file doesn't match the one in the ballot packet.
In mid-September, the Department of State issued guidance to counties that they shouldn’t reject ballots over questions about whether the signature on the mail-in ballot envelope matches the signature on file. Then, in early October, Boockvar asked the state Supreme Court to make clear that ballots shouldn’t be rejected over questions about whether the signatures match.
“Secretary Boockvar is doing her best, either through guidance or court decisions, to try to remove that security measure,” Corman said. “That’s been troubling.”
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, said that “arbitrary decisions by the administration and the courts” have led to election law changes that Republican lawmakers didn’t intend.
“As a nation, we’ve always viewed a signature as akin to a handshake in an agreement, in that if you signed your name to something, that was your mark,” Benninghoff said.
Boockvar defended her agency's actions.
“The Department of State has been working around the clock to implement all the historic election reforms passed pursuant to Act 77 of 2019 and Act 12 of 2020, answer questions from and provide guidance to 67 counties and public education to nearly 9 million voters, and carry out the procedures established as a result of first impression judicial interpretations determined by multiple courts in the last several months," Boockvar said.
“The legislature could take one small, simple step that would indisputably benefit all Pennsylvania counties, voters, candidates, and the nation as a whole by giving the counties more time to pre-canvass the millions of ballots voters are casting by mail," she said.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Wolf thinks lawmakers shouldn’t be holding up the reform to give counties more time to prepare to count the mail-in ballots over disagreements about other election law changes.
“Record turnout is expected for this election, and already more than 2.6 million Pennsylvania voters have requested a mail-in ballot,” Kensinger said. “The nation is watching Pennsylvania, and the legislature should swiftly pass a clean bill allowing counties to start pre-canvassing that large volume of mail-in ballots before Nov. 3 so accurate results are available sooner. This is a straightforward, nonpartisan tool for counties to conduct elections efficiently and accurately.”
Kensinger said that most of the court cases have been brought by outside groups and the Wolf Administration was required to respond to them.
“The administration’s actions in court have helped to clarify the state law to protect the voting rights of Pennsylvanians,” she said.