The Man-Made Disaster Continues

PA legislators have recessed for the summer, leaving unresolved many pressing problems in need of legislative solutions.

Time is running out for one problem that gained national visibility in the January 6 hearings. Months before the 2020 election, county election officials and commissioners called attention to a worrisome omission in Act 77, the omnibus election reform bill passed in 2019. While that bill made possible safe and traceable mail-in voting, it made no mention of pre-canvassing ballots, which would allow opening and preparing ballots for counting before election day.

County election officials, looking ahead to the work flow for the 2020 elections, repeatedly called attention to that omission. They asked in every way they could, for a simple legislative fix: a clean bill, on that topic alone, allowing pre-canvassing —preparation, but not counting—of ballots.

The 2020 primary further demonstrated the need for pre-canvassing and the requests became more urgent.

In September of 2020, former PA representative Gene DiGirolamo, now a Bucks County Commissioner, wrote an op-ed urging the PA General Assembly to “Avert a ‘man-made disaster’ on Election Day.” He called attention to the pandemic, the likelihood of a flood of mail-in ballots, and the unavoidable delay in a final vote count if ballots weren’t opened and prepared for the count beforehand:

We’re less than 60 days away from the election, and I’m sounding the alarm to anyone who will listen.

I don’t want to see Bucks County — or any other county in the Commonwealth — blamed for election result delays. It is clear that Pennsylvania is a battleground state and the eyes of the nation will be watching us on Election Night.

Our leaders have the opportunity to act swiftly, mitigate election delays by passing proactive measures that alleviate the burden on counties, and show that they can work together on matters like pre-canvassing. We are at a crossroads. Let’s encourage our leaders to take the path that best exemplifies bipartisanship.

Just weeks before the November 2020 election, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania called on legislative leaders to enact a solution. Association Chair, Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder, a Republican, told leaders:

The longer it takes for complete election results to be known, the greater the risk that those results will be questioned and second-guessed… And that Pennsylvania will become the national news story we don’t want to be.

Former Republican Governor Tom Ridge echoed the same request and concern:

A lot of eyes are going to be on this state in November. My message to the Legislature, Republicans and Democrats, and to the administration: Inaction is not an option. Backing away from the table is not an option.

No legislative action was taken. As predicted, PA has been caught in the middle of that man-made disaster ever since.

The bipartisan Election Law Advisory Board selected to evaluate the 2020 election submitted its first report in April 2021. That report focused on the delay caused by failure to enact a pre-canvassing provision, offered comparison with other states, and provided recommended legal language.

About the same time, the House State Government Committee held a hearing inviting comment on Act 77 and PA election law. Three witnesses from PA good government groups, plus two from national non-partisan organizations, stressed the need for a pre-canvasing provision.

The response, from both PA House and Senate State Government Committee chairs, has been omnibus election reform bills, laden with provisions that would make voting more difficult, guaranteed to trigger a veto from Governor Wolf. The pre-canvas proposal sought by election officials and commissioners from both parties and all parts of the state continues to be held hostage to more partisan agendas.

No clean pre-canvas legislation has been given a vote in either committee. In this, as in so many other cases, laws are held hostage to political agendas. Current legislative rules enable partisan games rather than bipartisan solutions. It’s time to Fix Harrisburg so bipartisan solutions get a vote.