FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 file photo, Chester County election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in the United States at West Chester University in West Chester. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) Mail-In Voting
FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 file photo, Chester County election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in the United States at West Chester University in West Chester. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

While some Republican lawmakers continue to support a controversial “investigation” of the 2020 general election and stricter voting laws, recently proposed improvements to the election code have garnered bipartisan support.

Two state senators — from opposing parties — have proposed legislation to improve Pennsylvania’s election code without controversial recommendations such as voter ID requirements.

Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill) and Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) introduced Senate Bill 878, a bill that would implement many of the recommendations made by the Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform.

After more than a year of lawsuits, partisan bickering, and legislative stalemates inflamed by last year’s presidential election, the proposed changes have been met with bipartisan support.

During a recent public hearing of the Senate State Government Committee, county election officials applauded the effort that has gone into SB 878, saying it represents a meaningful partnership between those who make the laws and those who actually carry out the election process.

“Counties learned a great deal from their experience implementing Act 77 during the 2020 elections, and we know there are ways in which changes to the law can improve our ability to administer elections, as well as our ability to provide more efficient results,” Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said during the hearing.

What Election Changes Does SB 878 Propose?

Regular Updates to Voter Rolls

The bill proposes that the Secretary of State do a monthly vetting of voter registration lists against state death records to ensure they are current, switching to daily real time vetting two weeks prior to a primary or general election.

Elimination of the Permanent Mail-in Voting List

The bill would eliminate the permanent mail-in voting list and would require a voter to make separate requests for a mail-in ballot each election. 

Schaefer said the permanent mail-in voting list created frustrations for both voters and county election officials during the 2020 election. Removing it would help alleviate additional burdens to a county’s workload, she said. 

Change of the Deadline to Apply for Mail-in Ballots

The bill shortens the time period in which to apply for a mail-in ballot.

County elections officials had requested pushing the deadline back to 15 days prior to an election, instead of the current seven days. SB 878 provides a 14-day deadline.

Act 77, passed in 2019, permitted voters to apply for a mail-in ballot up to seven days before an election. Schaefer said this created timing challenges with the postal service, particularly for those who waited until the last days before the deadline. It ultimately led to some voters not receiving their ballots before the deadline to submit them or receiving them too close to the deadline, making it logistically impossible for ballots to be returned via mail.

Regulations for Dropboxes

It allows for dropboxes to collect mail-in ballots, as long as the dropboxes are stationary and monitored 24/7 by video surveillance. All ballots must be collected and secured every evening. Each dropbox would be considered a polling place and must be accessible to all voters.

When it comes to drop boxes, Schaefer said, county elections officials will need more clarity. She said the bill should also include that counties be required to develop a security plan that includes how and when the ballots will be collected and transported; and how the drop box will be secured and monitored.

Tracking Mail-in Ballots

The bill also would require elections officials to create and implement a tracking system for mail-in and absentee ballots.

More Time for Elections Officials to Pre-canvass Mail-in Ballots

The bill would give counties three days before an election to begin processing mail-in ballots.

Extending each would go a long way to ensuring counties report timely results after an election, Schaefer said. The four-day delay in reporting results in the 2020 presidential election fueled unsubstantiated claims of fraud.

Counties have asked for up to 21 days to begin pre-canvassing activities. SB 878 proposes only three days. 

Pre-canvassing includes:

  • Verifying the barcode number and voter’s information on the outer envelope match what’s in the county election system
  • Opening envelopes
  • Removing and flattening the tri-fold ballot
  • Scanning ballots

Republican committee members questioned the security and integrity of pre-canvassing as well as the possibility of vote counts being leaked prematurely.

Schaefer noted that counties are not asking to count any votes early. In fact, tabulation of ballots is a different process altogether and can only occur when the designated official follows a secure procedure to manually extract the data from the central voting machine after all ballots have been scanned.

“Pre-canvassing can solve a lot of issues,” she said.

Livestreams of Pre-canvassing Proceedings

Pre-canvassing and canvassing proceedings would be livestreamed for public viewing and an area within sight of the counting must be made available for interested observers.

Schaefer said livestream requirement could be difficult.

Not only is broadband unreliable in some parts of the state, Schaefer said, some counties do not have the financial means to provide this type of service.

It also raises questions as to what happens if the livestream feed drops out in the middle of the process. Does everything have to stop until the feed is back up and running, Schaefer asked.

Forrest Lehman, director of elections and registration for Lycoming County, said he also had some concerns about this topic. A livestream or recording could be subject to editing and manipulation by the public and then reposted on social media. This would then infer something unethical took place when in fact, it did not.

“While counties appreciate the need for transparency, livestreaming and recording could be financially and practically challenging, or in some cases impossible, to implement,” Schaefer said. “Even more significantly, it could create and compound the significant misinformation challenges we have seen in recent elections.”

Other Assistance for County Elections Officials

The bill proposes providing technical assistance and reimbursement to county election officials for free poll worker and election-observer training on:

  • Voter rights and responsibilities
  • Distribution of sample ballots
  • Election observer rights and responsibilities

Have Any Other Election Changes Been Proposed?

SB 878 was referred to the Senate State Government committee. A public hearing to discuss the proposed changes is scheduled for Thursday.

Four other election reform bills made it out of committee this week and are headed to the Senate floor for consideration. They include:

  • SB 56 — Changes the number of write-in votes to qualify as a winner of an election (number of write-in votes must meet or exceed the number of nomination petition signatures required to get on the ballot)
  • SB 140 — Requires the electronic filing of campaign finance reports
  • SB 428 — Moves up the date of the presidential primary election to the third Tuesday in March. It is currently the fourth Tuesday in April.
  • SB 551 — Removes the requirement for a separate ballot for judicial elections 

“These bills are part of our efforts to restore the faith of all Pennsylvanians in our elections,” Argall said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 7:5 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 28, to include comments from a public hearing about the bill.