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April 26, 2023

Mail-in ballots could be opened a week prior to Election Day in Pennsylvania under proposed law

County commissioners would not be able to record or publish vote counts before polls open, but lawmakers say it will help avoid delays in the 2024 presidential election

A bill making its way through the Pennsylvania legislature would alter the state's mail-in ballot procedures, allowing counties to open envelopes and prepare ballots to be counted before Election Day. 

The legislation, introduced earlier this month by Rep. Scott Conklin, a Democrat from Centre County, advanced out of the State Government Committee on Tuesday. The bill would give counties seven days prior to Election Day to "pre-canvass" mail-in and absentee ballots, inspecting envelopes for voters' signatures and ensuring they can be scanned and counted once the polls open.

Pennsylvania's current law dictates that commissioners must wait until 7 a.m. on Election Day to begin opening, preparing and tabulating mail ballots. If the new law is passed, counties would still be barred from recording or publishing vote counts before the polls open, in order to ensure that the outcome of the race is not influenced by mail-in voters. County election officials have long called for pre-canvassing measures in Pennsylvania, saying that the influx of mail ballots in recent years has caused delays in counting votes and determining the outcome of races. 

Commissioners would be able to check for errors on ballots, investigate signatures, flatten ballots and prepare them to be scanned into the automated tabulation system. This process can often take hours or days to complete, depending on the number of ballots received, NPR reported. 

The Bipartisan Policy Center has recommended providing at least seven days for this process in order to avoid delays in reporting vote counts, and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania included pre-canvassing on its list of priorities for 2023

"Election board workers statewide are telling us that with the increase in mail and absentee ballots, the current system isn't leaving them enough time to tabulate votes," Conklin said in a press release. "It's a situation that is leading to frustration and delays, injecting a greater chance of error and even generating voter mistrust of the system. This is a bipartisan issue — we're hearing these complaints from workers on both sides of the political aisle."

The bill would also allow ballots mailed without the secrecy envelope to be counted, a provision that prompted a 40-minute debate about the constitutionality of the bill during a hearing on the legislation this week, KYW reported. Committee members approved the measure with a 12-9 vote on Tuesday, with all Republicans opposing the bill. 

Conklin previously introduced his pre-canvassing legislation last spring, largely as a response to the 2020 presidential election, in which persistent delays in counting and reporting mail-in ballots caused frustration and controversy among voters in Pennsylvania and states across the country. 

Philadelphia City Commissioners received more than 350,000 mail-in ballots by Election Day in 2020, and more than 100,000 had yet to be counted 24 hours after the polls closed. Pennsylvania was among the final states to declare President Joe Biden as the winner of the race. 

Conklin wrote in a co-sponsorship memo earlier this year that he believes the legislation is needed to provide adequate time for county election officials to prepare for the influx of mail-in ballots expected in the 2024 presidential election, which is about 18 months away. 

"By empowering counties to pre-canvass mail ballots, we not only expedite the vote-counting procedure but also foster transparency, mitigate the risk of misinformation and ultimately fortify the public's confidence in our democratic system," Seth Bluestein, Philadelphia's Republican city commissioner, said in a press release. "Pennsylvania needs these reforms to position the commonwealth as a beacon of election integrity for the entire nation." 

While pre-canvassing is typically not a partisan issue, the legislation is unlikely to pass the Republican-led state Senate without added provisions that are typically opposed by Democrats. Following the committee vote on Tuesday, Senate Republicans have focused much of their attention on enacting voter ID laws

"Voters deserve to have confidence in our electoral process," Senate Republican spokesperson Kate Flessner told Spotlight PA. "A holistic approach to addressing concerns is most appropriate, with voter identification being a key component." 

After passing out of the House State Government Committee on Tuesday, the legislation goes to the full state House of Representatives for a vote. There is no vote scheduled yet. If the bill passes, it will need to pass the Republican-led state Senate before being sent to Gov. Josh Shapiro's desk for his signature.