Decision 2020

Why Can't Mail-in Ballots Be Counted Ahead of Election Day in Pa.? Politics in Harrisburg

More than 3 million mail-in ballots could be cast in Pennsylvania in the Nov. 3 presidential election. County election officials want to start counting them early to speed up the process of declaring a winner. Politics in Harrisburg is standing in the way.

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With more than 200,000 mail-in ballots expected to arrive at Montgomery County's election office for the Nov. 3 presidential election, local officials would like time before Election Day to begin sorting those ballots.

Right now, they can't do anything with the mail-in ballots except receive them and hold them until Election Day, Montgomery County Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence Jr. said.

That's when counties will finally be allowed to start counting millions of mail-in ballots, even though many will have been sitting in their election offices for days, if not weeks.

State law currently prohibits any counting of mail-in ballots before 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, and county election officials like Lawrence Jr. would like any help they can get through new laws from the state Legislature to quicken the process.

Despite spending $1 million on new equipment to open envelopes and count mail-in ballots quicker, Lawrence Jr. said it'll still take days to count a quarter million ballots without action by lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf to allow for sorting before Nov. 3.

"People have to know we will not have results on election night if we can’t pre-canvass," Lawrence Jr. said, using the term for early counting. "Even with the equipment we have, it’s still a labor intensive process. It took us 17 days in the primary to count (105,000) mail-in ballots. We’ll have a better process in place, but we'll have many more ballots."

Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Legislature are stuck in a logjam over the issue. Wolf this summer asked for counties to be allowed to start sorting mail-in ballots 15 days before Nov. 3. Republicans in the General Assembly have countered three days, but included that offer in a bill that would ban drop boxes throughout the state.

Sample voting ballots sit in a pile during a training on a new ballot sorting machine at the Board of Elections in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Rachel Wisniewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sample voting ballots sit in a pile during a training on a new ballot sorting machine at the Board of Elections in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Pennsylvania is taking steps to scale up for the November 3 election. Counties are investing millions of dollars on new ballot sorters, high-speed scanners and other equipment and staff to handle the projected 3 million mail-in ballots for November 3.

Wolf has supported drop boxes, and election officials are already planning to place dozens of drop boxes in locations spread out across counties. In the five-county Philadelphia region of southeastern Pennsylvania, more than 50 drop boxes will be used.

"This is the biggest unsettled issue at this point," Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, said of pre-Election Day sorting. "This is one that simply hasn’t been addressed."

A spokesman for Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster County, said GOP leaders "continue to be open to hearing from the Wolf admininstration or governor's office to ensure Pennsylvanians can have certainty and faith in the election system that forms their government."

"The problem is the Wolf administration and the governor himself have refused to engage on any substantive discussion regarding this or any other legislative matter," House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman said.

Officials with the Wolf administration were not available for comment Thursday.

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