Pa. legislature will take up election law changes starting next week

Lessons from Pa.'s 6/2 primary lessons to inform changes for Nov.

  • Emily Previti
Join WITF tomorrow night at 7 p.m. for the second in a series of virtual conversations about systemic racism and injustice. At least four more sessions are planned during the rest of the summer, each featuring community leaders and focused on specific manifestations of institutional racism. Tomorrow night’s discussion will explore the link between racism and physical and mental health. Learn more here.  —Emily Previti, staff writer
A voter cast her mail-in ballot at in a drop box in West Chester, Pa., prior to the primary election, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A voter cast her mail-in ballot at in a drop box in West Chester, Pa., prior to the primary election, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is suing Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and all 67 county election boards, as we reported earlier this week.

The federal lawsuit makes several claims, including that counties violated Pa.’s election code by offering ballot dropoff in secure boxes at libraries, shopping centers and other places that aren’t polling places or county election offices.

The election code portions cited in the complaint require voters to mail their ballots or deliver them in person to their county board of election. We wondered: How strong is the case the Trump campaign is making about the legality of ballot dropboxes used during the primary?

Now that this issue is the subject of litigation, the Department of State, most county officials and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania aren’t commenting. At least not yet.

So, we asked Chris Deluzio, policy director for the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.

“The statute doesn’t say you have to hand it to a person, or drop it at an office, in a box, a lobby, a building, etc.,” says Deluzio, who thinks counties should expand ballot dropoff options for the Nov. 3 general election. “County boards [also] weren’t treating these locations as polling sites, they were treating them as the functional equivalent of personal delivery to the boards of elections.”

Ballot security came up again Tuesday, when a coalition of government reform groups wrote to Boockvar and Gov. Tom Wolf with recommendations they say lawmakers should enact ahead of the general election.

The coalition’s letter laid out six recommendations. One of them — the use of post-election risk-limiting audits — was tested in 2019 and is scheduled to be implemented statewide next year.

Some of the other recommendations could be considered when the legislature debates election reforms, a process expected to resume next week in Harrisburg.

Last week, legislators got their first look at HB2626, a vehicle for enacting election reforms. It’s expected to be changed substantially before final passage. Already, several lawmakers have filed proposed amendments or soon will — including provisions that would require monitoring ballot dropboxes, according to House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett (R-Lycoming).

One of the recommendations included in Tuesday’s letter calls for 24/7 video surveillance of ballot processing areas (something that’s already done in Washington state, where nearly all votes are cast by mail).

The letter also called for curtailing the use of touchscreen voting machines to limit the spread of COVID-19, and offering voters the option of casting a paper ballot instead when the devices are used.

While the state law already requires counties to maintain a stock of paper ballots in case electronic voting machines fail, they aren’t necessary in most counties. The vast majority — more than 50 counties — had planned well in advance to use hand-marked ballots for the June 2 primary, with a few making the switch at the last minute due to the pandemic. And an emergency court ruling issued in light of the pandemic made it easier for some blind voters to fill out their ballots from home rather than going to the polls.

But about a dozen counties used touchscreen devices for the primary election. Philadelphia, Cumberland and Northampton used the ExpressVote XL, specifically. One lawsuit over the controversial machine is active in state court; a federal judge ruled earlier this year against plaintiff Jill Stein in another one initiated after the last presidential election.

Philly officials said ahead of the primary they’d make gloves available to all voters to minimize the risk of spreading coronavirus. But that didn’t happen in every precinct and supplies of PPE ran low or ran out at some polling places. In a scenario like that, having a paper ballot option available becomes critical.

“There are many iterations of what we could do,” Everett said of other changes expected to be considered. “And we’ll see where we finally end up.”

Best of the rest

Anthony Orozco / PA Post

Protesters calling for the release of families held at the Berks Detention Center used a projector to illuminate the outside of Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera’s home on Monday, June 29, 2020.

  • Shut Down Berks Coalition activists demanding the closure of the county’s detention center demonstrated outside the home of Republican Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera earlier this week. Rivera, the lone Latino on the board, spoke briefly to protestors and noted no one had asked to meet with him about the issue before the protest. Organizers say they “chose to protest at Rivera’s home for a number of reasons, which included Rivera’s Latino ethnicity and the commissioner’s appearance at a Black Lives Matter event on Penn Street Bridge earlier this month,” Anthony Orozco reports in his latest for PA Post.

  • The protest at Rivera’s home came on the heels of a court order to release children detained at the Berks facility and two others in California. Partly prompted by the pandemic, the ruling raises concerns among advocates. “I don’t necessarily foresee ICE in this situation just releasing all of the families together without continued legal battles and other fights to get them to do the right thing,” Reading-based firm ALDEA attorney Jaqueline King told Alanna Elder in this story for WITF.

  • More than a decade after the fracking boom began in Pa., state health officials say they’re looking into health risks posed by natural gas drilling. They’re acting in response to a grand jury report that faulted state officials  — the Department of Environmental Protection, mainly — for failing to adequately protect public health. Health Secretary Rachel Levine noted the department already has a registry where the public can report health concerns linked to fracking and other actions could require state legislative action. More here from Brett Sholtis for StateImpact Pennsylvania.

  • Levine and her boss, Gov. Tom Wolf, are under fire over Pennsylvania’s handling of nursing home during the pandemic, with some congressional Republicans blaming the Wolf administration for “thousands of elderly deaths in Pennsylvania.” The state instructed long-term care facilities to continue to accept patients, even if they had tested positive for COVID-19, in an attempt to preserve hospital beds. Levine is defending the policy, however, in part because she contends the virus generally takes hold inside such a facility via a staffer, not patients, PA Post’s Ed Mahon reports.

  • Police reform legislation passed in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May will be signed into law by Gov. Wolf today, the Associated Press reports. PA Post’s Ed Mahon wrote about the bills a few weeks ago. A few related links: The Morning Call‘How do you earn that back?‘: Leaders in Northampton County law enforcement, Black leaders gather to discuss restoring trust between police, communities of color. Reuters: Trump and Biden divided on race, criminal justice policies.

  • A new paid parental leave policy takes effect today for Penn State employees. WPSU’s Min Xian takes a look at what the policy means for new parents who work for the state’s largest higher education institution.

  • Should consumer-grade fireworks be banned statewide? A bill that passed overwhelmingly in the state Senate Tuesday would allow local officials in a handful of big cities to do just that. PennLive’s Jan Murphy notes that several legislators want to give every city in the state the ability to impose such a ban.

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