How early is too early to start processing mail-in ballots?

Pa. counties want more time, but some officials voice concerns about voting results being leaked

  • Emily Previti
We heard from two people yesterday via our Listening Post asking whether Pennsylvania voters must apply for a mail-in ballot every year. You do not, as long as you request to be added to the permanent list as part of the mail-in ballot application. If, however, you didn’t request the permanent option for the June primary — or if you can’t remember — you can reapply at VotesPA.com. —Emily Previti, staff writer

Emily Previti/PA Post

Berks County’s letter opener worked well processing mailed ballots — but ruined the carpet, according to Assistant Solicitor Chad Schnee. (Emily Previti/PA Post)

A Pennsylvania panel met for nearly two hours Thursday to discuss potential election law changes ahead of more involved talks expected later this summer.

You can replay the video of the State Government Committee hearing, and read my Tweets here.

Most of the witnesses who spoke at the hearing stressed the need to change state law to allow counties to start processing mailed ballots well ahead of Election Day, a practice often referred to as pre-canvassing.

What didn’t get much air time, however, are the particulars behind that term, which have significant implications in this context.

 As defined by Pa.’s election code, pre-canvassing not only encompasses opening mailed ballots and preparing them for counting — it also includes tallying votes (but not announcing the results or otherwise publicizing them).

Some election directors have advocated for changing state law to permit them to start pre-canvassing as far as 21 days before Election Day. They say changes to Pa.’s election laws should emphasize that tallies from scanned ballots are to be stored, but not accessed, until the polls close on Election Day. They said that rule should be backed up with sanctions for anyone who releases results early.

But some officials and election integrity advocates have concerns about the risk of  counting votes in advance of Election Day. Political campaigns could use leaked data to shape their strategy and determine how to allocate resources, putting them at an unfair advantage, a scenario that Protect Our Vote Philly co-founder Rich Garella brought up at the hearing.

The mere suspicion that one candidate or party got access to pre-Election Day counts also could open the door for results to be challenged.

House State Government Committee Chair Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) says any legislation addressing this issue would clearly define what can occur ahead of polls closing. Everett says he’s been using the term “pre-processing” to refer to work by county election staff to prepare mailed ballots (i.e. opening envelopes, confirming signatures and ensuring ballots are properly stacked and aligned for scanning).

“Many members are very, very, very leery of scanning ballots before Election Day,” Everett said Thursday. “I get why. It could be done securely, it’s done in other states securely. But I don’t know that we need to do it. The time-consuming part is pre-processing.”

During Thursday’s hearing, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she favors an earlier start for pre-canvassing — but didn’t get into specifics.

Asked for clarification, DoS spokesman Wanda Murren said the following by email:

“When she talks about ‘pre-canvassing,’ [Boockvar] is not adamant that this must include scanning or counting or tallying votes. The many other tasks – verifying voters’ eligibility, allowing for the challenge process, opening envelopes, flattening ballots – take a significant amount of time,” Murren wrote. “If counties were allowed to carry out all these preliminary tasks in advance, that would make a great difference in the time to carry out vote counting after the polls close.”

The legislature isn’t slated to begin serious work on election law changes until after the Department of State releases its review of the June 1 primary. That report is due on Aug. 1, a Saturday, so we probably won’t see the document before the following Monday.

Also: Motions to dismiss the federal lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign against Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and 67 county election boards are due today. U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan — a Trump appointee — ruled one week ago that if the case proceeds, arguments would begin Sept. 22 in Pittsburgh.

A few election headlines from around the country: 

Best of the rest

Photo courtesy FBI.gov

Individuals caught on tape in the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation, a high-level undercover sting targeting public corruption and organized crime. Here, U.S. Representative Michael Myers, second from left, holds an envelope containing $50,000 that he just received from undercover FBI Agent Anthony Amoroso, left. Also shown in the photo are Angelo Errichetti, second from right, and convicted con man Mel Weinberg.

  • U.S. Attorney William McSwain announced election fraud charges Thursday for Philadelphia political consultant (and former Democratic congressman) Michael “Ozzie” Myers. The charges stem from Myers’s alleged conspiracy with and bribery of city election judge Domenic DeMuro. Myers was charged and convicted in the Abscam scandal in 1980, the conclusion of his tenure in Congress. In her latest for WHYY, Katie Meyer describes the alleged conduct at the polls during 2014, 2016 and 2018 that resulted in the new case against Myers. Charges announced Thursday are in addition to those announced this spring for alleged ballot box stuffing. Prosecutors still aren’t saying whether his actions changed the outcome in any election.

  • Pennsylvania is now offering a non-binary gender option on driver’s licenses. The commonwealth became the 17th state to do so, the Associated Press reports.

  • Thousands of Pennsylvanians are still waiting on unemployment benefits, despite the state Department of Labor & Industry bringing on more workers during the past four months to respond to historic filing rates amid pandemic-driven layoffs. PennLive’s Ivey DeJesus talked to some of them for this story about those still struggling to get support.   Meanwhile, the commonwealth’s food stamp enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent since February, Lara Olson reports for The Morning Call.

  • Gov. Tom Wolf could veto a bill today that would’ve established procedures for public agencies to process records during a pandemic. Wolf has spoken publicly about his intent to reject the legislation before the end of this week — that’s today. Wolf has cited a couple reasons he’s against the measure, including not wanting to force state workers forced into the office during a pandemic. More here from TribLive.

  • Did the chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court plot against an African American justice over her alleged “minority agenda”? Former justice Cynthia Baldwin is alleging just that, while Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor denies it outright. The Philadelphia Inquirer tries to sort through the allegation.

  • Rep. Scott Perry, the Republican congressman from York County representing the state’s 10th congressional district, on Thursday told attendees of a virtual town hall that there’s little risk in reopening schools this fall because scientists have found that children can’t spread coronavirus to adults. The York Dispatch covered Perry’s remarks and noted scientific studies that found just the opposite. Perry was echoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has said children are “stoppers” of the virus. The Washington Post fact checked DeVos and found no basis for her claim. A German study cited by DeVos and Perry has yet to be peer reviewed and its authors don’t think its findings would apply to a country like the United States where the virus remains widespread (unlike in Europe, where it’s largely contained at the moment).

Coronavirus headlines

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