Democrats advance election bill in Pennsylvania long sought by counties to process ballots faster

FILE - Chester County, Pa. election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots at West Chester University in West Chester on Nov. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

By Associated Press

May 2, 2024

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill long sought by counties seeking help to manage huge influxes of mail-in ballots during elections in the presidential battleground state and to avoid a repeat of 2020’s drawn-out vote count.

The bill comes barely six months before Pennsylvania could play a decisive role in selecting the next president in November’s election between Democratic President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, a Republican.

The bill passed on party lines, 102-99, as Democrats backed it and Republicans opposed it, warning that it would open the door to fraud. Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, supports the bill, and on Wednesday issued a statement urging the Senate to pass it. But it faces long odds in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Under the bill, county election workers could begin processing ballots up to seven days before Election Day.

Counties have sought that kind of a provision for years, even before 2020’s presidential election, to give them more time to process mail-in ballots and avoid a drawn-out post-election count.

Nearly every state allows time before Election Day for workers to process mail-in ballots. Currently, Pennsylvania doesn’t let counties begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania backed the bill, saying that having more time to process mail-in ballots before polls close — called “precanvassing” — will help them manage the workload and ensure quicker results.

“This simple change would significantly improve election administration without compromising ballot security,” Lisa Schaefer, the association’s executive director, said in a statement.

Schaefer asked the Senate to quickly advance the bill to Shapiro so that it can be implemented for November’s general election.

But Senate GOP Majority Leader Joe Pittman insisted Wednesday that Pennsylvania must toughen voter identification requirements as a companion to any legislation on election administration — a demand Republicans have made since 2021.

Democrats have opposed such a change, saying there is scant record of in-person voting fraud and that it will only prevent some registered voters from voting.

A surge in mail-in ballots in 2020’s presidential election shined a spotlight on Pennsylvania’s requirement after it took four days of counting for news agencies to project Biden as the winner of Pennsylvania, giving him the electoral votes necessary to win the White House.

However, Trump and his allies tried to exploit the days it took after polls closed to tabulate the millions of mail-in ballots to spread baseless conspiracy theories and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.

Republicans revived those claims during Wednesday’s nearly hourlong floor debate.

“Under this legislation, they’ll take votes from anyone, anytime, anywhere, legal or not,” Rep. Martina White, a Republican from Philadelphia, said during floor debate.

One Republican lawmaker referred back to baseless claims that partisans in Philadelphia, a Democratic bastion, shut down vote-counting to falsify enough mail-in ballots for Biden after polls closed to overcome Trump’s advantage among those voting in-person at polling places.

“This vote will take us back in the days where cities close with one leader for president and opened again with another,” said Rep. Eric Nelson, a Republican from Westmoreland.

House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, a Democrat from Montgomery, said it is shameless to suggest that the legislation is partisan and that lawmakers should pass it to help guarantee a timely and accurate election result while avoiding a repeat of 2020.

“This is simply about giving people a timely result in an election so we don’t have what we had in 2020,” Bradford said during floor debate. “The mindless conspiracies. The election denialism. I’ve heard so much over the last 20 minutes of debate that remind me so much of the horrible months that followed the November 2020 election.”

In 2020, 2.65 million ballots were cast by mail in Pennsylvania, the nation’s fifth-most populous state, or almost 40% of the total.

Republicans have been hostile toward mail-in voting since Trump in early 2020 began baselessly smearing it as rife with fraud.

At least partly as a result, the majority of mail-in ballots — usually about 70% — are cast by registered Democrats in Pennsylvania and the majority of in-person voting on Election Day is done by registered Republicans.

In the days and weeks after 2020’s election, Trump and his allies filed lawsuits to try to throw out mail-in ballots and keep Trump in power by overturning Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.

Republicans have repeatedly gone to court since then to try to invalidate Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law.

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