HARRISBURG — County and state elections officials pressed lawmakers Thursday to make changes to help county elections staff prepare for a presidential election likely to generate an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots.
The main sticking point raised by leaders of the state's two main political parties is whether or how the state should make it easier for people to vote by mail.
Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills told members of the Senate state government committee on Thursday that all counties should be allowed to post drop boxes at polling locations so voters can deposit their ballots without waiting in line to vote in the polling locations.
Voters can drop their mail-in ballots off at the county election office but that creates an inconvenience for voters who don’t live near the county seat, she said, calling it a “common sense” reform.
“This is especially important in rural Pennsylvania,” Mills said. Mills added that the state should provide funding for counties to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters.
Eighteen counties in Pennsylvania set up drop boxes for voters in the primary, according to Department of State data. That move is being challenged in a lawsuit by President Donald J. Trump's campaign and a group of Republican members of Congress.
Lawrence Tabas, chairman of the state Republican Party, said that the state should bar the use of these drop boxes because they aren’t permissible under the current state election law.
“Mail-in ballot drop boxes are problematic,” he said. “The Legislature has specifically indicated how mail-in ballots are supposed to be submitted, by the voter either in the mail or by the voter in person at the county board of elections.”
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said that in light of the lawsuit, she declined to discuss the dropbox issue at length during the Senate hearing.
Tabas also called on the Legislature to roll back a pair of key deadlines — the voter registration deadline and the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot. Under current law, voters can register up to 15 days prior to the election and voters can ask for mail-in ballots up to seven days before the election.
Having these deadlines so close to Election Day creates confusion at the polling places because the lists provided to poll workers aren’t always up-to-date, “leaving poll workers ill-equipped and overwhelmed,” he said.
The June primary was the first election in which voters in Pennsylvania were allowed to vote by mail without getting an absentee ballot by providing an explanation for why they couldn’t make it to the polls.
“There is no question that mail-in ballots came at the right time,” said Snyder County commissioner Joe Kantz.
However, the increased number of mail-in ballots and the challenge of counting them creates “a major potential for human error,” he said.
Lawmakers acknowledged that there is pressure to make fixes before the presidential election when the number of voters and the number of voters cast by mail will increase dramatically.
State Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County, said “the clock is ticking” for the General Assembly to make changes to provide county officials with an opportunity to adjust and make sure voters are provided ample notice about the changes.
If the Legislature doesn’t act, “this will be, for lack of a better word, a circus,” she said.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this summer requires the Department of State to produce a report on the June primary by Aug. 1 for lawmakers to use to craft possible reforms.
“Everyone agrees we’re on a narrow timeline,” said state Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, the chairman of the Senate state government committee. “Voters need to feel safe and know their vote is accurately counted.”