Decision 2020

Pa. Election Officials Want Mail-in Ballots Counted Sooner

The cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service put the spotlight in recent weeks on how quickly a surge of mail-in ballots in the November presidential election will be returned to local election offices. But another question looms: How fast will those ballots be tallied?

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The prospect of a presidential election outcome waiting on results from Pennsylvania, and even more specifically, Philadelphia, hasn't escaped city Commissioner Lisa Deeley.

“That scenario keeps me up at night,” said Deeley, chairwoman of Philadelphia's elected three-member body that oversees city elections.

Election officials are urging voters to manage expectations for the Nov. 3 election when it comes to counting votes. Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told NBC10 earlier this year that voters should go into Election Day without an expectation that the statewide result will be known later that same night.

The uncertainty is due in large part to the expected surge in mail-in ballots and how quickly county election offices will be able to count those ballots.

As mail delays and cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service put the spotlight recently on how quickly ballots will reach elections offices this fall, another question looms ahead of the general election: What happens once all those millions of mail-in ballots to arrive at the county election offices?

The day after the June 2 primary, only three Pennsylvania counties had finished counting mail-in and absentee ballots, according to a report on the primary produced by the Pennsylvania Department of State. Three days later, 26 of the state's 61 counties were finished. By June 17, Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties reported completion. It took almost three weeks - until June 22 - for all of Pennsylvania’s counties to report that they had finished counting. 

In Pennsylvania, voters could vote by mail without an excuse for the first time in the primary, giving officials their first look at the impact of vote by mail on the process of getting results

Deeley says the process took as long as it did because elections officials were essentially dealing with “two elections” - one in person and one by mail. 

She points to one thing that could make the process easier and faster: starting earlier. 

In Pennsylvania, elections officials can’t start the process of dealing with mail-in ballots - known as pre-canvassing - until the morning of Election Day. Some would like to move the process up. Gov. Tom Wolf said Aug. 25 in a letter to the Republican-controlled state legislature that he would like pre-canvassing to be allowed to start 21 days before the Nov. 3 election.

“Even if we had an extra day or two before the election to start opening those envelopes - that’s what’s really important because that’s what’s really time consuming,” said Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican who sits on the board of elections in Bucks County. 

DiGirolamo and Deeley are among the officials who - along with the Secretary of State - are urging the legislature to allow the process to start earlier. 

It would not be without precedent - in Florida, elections officials can start scanning and tabulating ballots at least 22 days before Election Day. 

“The situation we need to avoid in Pennsylvania is a multiple day, if not a multiple week, delay in determining who won Pennsylvania in this presidential election,” said Rep. Kevin Boyle, the Democratic chairman of the House State Government Committee. 

Pennsylvania lawmakers are set to return to session next week. A spokesman for the House Republican Caucus said the report produced by Department of State on the primary “showed changes are needed to our Election Code to improve the process we experienced in the primary.”

“The House Republican Caucus agrees that something must get done to ensure our elections are conducted safely and the integrity of the vote is protected,” House Republican Caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman said in an email. “At this time, we are still working with the administration and the Senate to reach an agreement on possible changes."

In the meantime, Deeley has advice for voters planning to vote by mail: 

“As soon as you hear the words mail in voting, if you want to be a mail in voter: Apply today.”

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