Election 2022

Why Pa. election officials still can’t start processing mail ballots before Election Day

The short answer: politics.

Workers tally mail ballots inside the Pa. Convention Center on Election Day 2020

Workers tally mail ballots inside the Pa. Convention Center on Election Day 2020

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Deja vu: Pennsylvania might not know who won big races the night of the November election. We might not find out who the next senator is, or even governor, until the next day — or days later. That’s despite election officials’ consistent ask to let them start processing mail ballots earlier, like their counterparts can in most other states.

There is one change to this year: 63 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will be counting mail ballots around the clock starting at 7 a.m. on Nov. 8. But beginning any earlier than that is still against state election law.

Getting an accurate vote count could take “several days’ worth of work,” Pa. Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman said earlier this week.

It’s unlikely Pennsylvania will see the same number of mail voters as in 2020, when pandemic precautions were widespread and 2.6 million, close to 40% of all voters, opted to vote by mail.

But a lot of people are still requesting mail ballots.

More than 1.15 million voters statewide had applied to vote by mail as of Thursday, per the Department of State, including more than 130k Philadelphians. That number still has room to grow between now and the Nov. 1 deadline to apply for a mail ballot.

Since 2020, county election officials and the Pa. Department of State have been asking politicians in Harrisburg to give counties the greenlight to begin opening and sorting mail ballots several days or weeks ahead of Election Day — a process known as “pre-canvassing.”

Why hasn’t it happened? Here’s a look at all the political back-and-forth, which has ultimately fizzled into a stalemate.

It all began with Act 77

To really understand how all this ballot counting madness began, we’ve got to flash back to The Before Times™.

Once upon a time, in the blissful pre-COVID days of October 2019, the Pennsylvania General Assembly did something that now seems unthinkable in today’s political landscape. The legislature passed a comprehensive, bipartisan set of updates to the commonwealth’s Election Code after lots of negotiations, all packaged together in a piece of legislation known as Act 77 of 2019.

Act 77 did lots of stuff: among them, it got rid of straight-ticket voting, provided funding for counties to buy voting machines with paper trails, and — notably — allowed Pennsylvania voters to cast their ballots by mail without any particular reason for doing so.

Before Act 77, state election law only allowed voting by mail when voters physically couldn’t make it to their polling place on Election Day, like if they were in college or traveling for work.

One thing the law didn’t do, however, was give election officials any extra time to count those newly-allowed mail ballots.

Then, 2020 happened

A few months after the bill passed, in February 2020, the Department of State started telling counties they should brace for way more mail votes than what they were used to. In the primary election that June — several months after COVID first hit the commonwealth and many Pennsylvanians stuck to their homes — that prediction came true, and it took almost three weeks to tally results in some counties.

Between the primary and the general election, some folks eyed making changes to pre-empt a drawn-out vote-counting process in November. The Department of State recommended changing the law to allow pre-canvassing three weeks ahead of Election Day, and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania made a similar ask.

But talks between the Democratic governor and the majority-Republican state legislature didn’t go anywhere.

Republicans in the General Assembly furthered a bill that would’ve given three days of pre-canvassing time to the counties, but it had some other measures attached to it, too — including one that would have effectively banned ballot drop boxes. Gov. Tom Wolf opposed the bill for making it “harder, not easier, for citizens to vote,” his spokesperson said at the time.

Ultimately, all hopes of a bipartisan agreement crumbled, and the November election rolled around. It took half a week of ballot counting for the winner of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes (and the entire presidency) to become clear — all with conspiracy theories starting to form and former President Donald Trump trying to prematurely claim victory in the meantime, as officials continued to ask the public for patience.

Hundreds joined a rally to count every vote outside of Philadelphia’s ballot-counting operation during election week 2020

Hundreds joined a rally to count every vote outside of Philadelphia’s ballot-counting operation during election week 2020

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Plenty of post-election proposals, but lots of partisanship

After the fiasco that was the 2020 election, changes to the Election Code were obviously on lawmakers’ minds.

But their exact proposals varied widely. False claims of a rigged election and attempts to “audit” the vote by Trump’s Republican allies in the state legislature clouded talks, and legal challenges to the 2020 election — and Act 77 itself — were going on in the background.

What’s resulted from talks over election reform in the past two years has been a back-and-forth between Republicans — who have generally wanted bills addressing election reform to add more requirements to the vote-by-mail process, which they’ve billed as security measures — and Democrats, who largely oppose those additional measures for adding barriers to voting.

An attempt at change… packaged with controversial measures

In 2021, the Republican chair of the House State Government Committee, Rep. Seth Grove of York County, spearheaded a set of 10 election oversight hearings, which Grove painted as a crucial review of everything that went wrong during the presidential election the year before. (Democrats generally disagreed with that framing.)

Those hearings culminated in an omnibus bill chock full of Election Code changes, authored by Grove. The legislation would have allowed counties to start pre-canvassing five days before Election Day, introduced in-person early voting starting in 2025, and explicitly allowed voters to “cure” their mail ballots.

But it also would’ve moved the voter registration deadline to an earlier date, required signature verification for mail ballots, and implemented a voter ID requirement.

The legislature passed the bill, but Gov. Wolf vetoed it in June 2021, saying it would “[restrict] the freedom to vote.”

He made it clear that he was still open to compromise — but not on the matter of voter ID requirements. (The General Assembly has since started the process for potentially amending the state constitution to create stricter voter ID requirements, a process that doesn’t require gubernatorial approval.)

There are multiple pre-canvassing proposals floating about, but apparently no ‘consensus’

Pre-canvassing hasn’t been seriously considered on its own in the legislature — it’s always been part of a larger, more controversial package. Some lawmakers have introduced bills that largely or solely zero in on pre-canvassing, but there hasn’t been any action on them.

For example, Rep. Regina Young — a Democrat from Philly — introduced a no-strings-attached bill that would simply extend the pre-canvassing window to 21 days, which was referred to the House State Government Committee in January but hasn’t been considered.

Republican Sen. David Argall from Schuylkill County introduced a bill that would address two things county commissioners have specifically requested: pre-canvassing (the bill would allow counties to start a week before the election) and an earlier deadline for mail ballot applications. Argall also worked with Democratic Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia to put together a larger package of what they billed as bipartisan voting reforms, including three days of pre-canvassing.

Both pieces of legislation were introduced over a year ago, but both have yet to be considered in the Senate State Government Committee, which Argall chairs.

Argall told Spotlight PA in July that Republicans have not “been able to develop a consensus” on the issue. Later in July, Grove told reporters that House Republicans wouldn’t vote for pre-canvassing “without security provisions within the mail-in ballot system.”

Philadelphia's mail ballots in a secure area at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2020

Philadelphia's mail ballots in a secure area at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2020

Emma Lee / WHYY

Other counting changes made it through the legislative process alive — but with strings attached

While an actual pre-canvassing bill has yet to happen (will it ever? Who knows), different election legislation — agreed to by both the General Assembly and the governor — will result in some changes to vote-counting procedures this election.

Act 88 of 2022, which Wolf signed into law in July, banned counties from accepting private dollars to aid in election administration, but in the process created a $45-million pot of state funding that counties could apply for to use on running elections.

The state funding is conditional, though — any county accepting the dollars had to agree to count mail ballots around the clock starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day, which some county officials have said is unsustainable for election workers.

Only four of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties ultimately turned down the dollars, though. Philadelphia is getting $5.4 million from the fund.

A takeaway for this election cycle: We still need to be patient.

Though Act 88 requires constant counting, tallying results quickly without any pre-canvassing time before Election Day will ultimately still be a heavy lift for counties, acting secretary of state Chapman said.

“Unofficial results will be available within a few days of the election, and it’s critically important for everyone to understand that this delay does not mean anything nefarious is happening,” she said. “An accurate count of all eligible votes is paramount, and it cannot be rushed.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2022 stories.

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