Capitol Beat

PA House narrowly approves 7-day pre-canvassing bill

After a spirited debate, House lawmakers advanced a bill that would give election administrators more time to pre-canvass mail ballots.

Democratic state Rep. Scott Conklin is the prime sponsor of House Bill 847.

Democratic state Rep. Scott Conklin is the prime sponsor of House Bill 847. Commonwealth Media Services

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted along party lines Wednesday to pass legislation that would give county election workers more time to pre-canvass mail and absentee ballots ahead of Election Day, advancing a longtime priority of county election administrators in the state. 

The legislation, House Bill 847, would expand the amount of time counties have to pre-canvass ballots by allowing election boards to start the process up to seven days before the date of an election. 

Currently, county election boards may begin the pre-canvassing process – which involves inspecting and opening envelopes, removing ballots from their envelopes and preparing votes to be tallied – at 7 a.m. on Election Day.

Several bills to expand the amount of time for pre-canvassing have been introduced in recent years following the passage of Act 77 of 2019 – an omnibus election reform law that brought no-excuse mail-in voting to the commonwealth for the first time.

House Democrats were unanimous in their support for HB 847, framing it as a simple change that will speed up the counting of votes and ensure election results are reported in a timely manner. 

State Rep. Scott Conklin, a Centre County Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, said during floor debate that the legislation had the backing of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, adding that the change will prevent delays in knowing election results.

“What does this mean? You will have the winner known on election night. Can you imagine that? They won’t be counting votes three days afterward. They’re gonna have honest, hard-working Republicans, honest, hard-working Democrats sit before each other, open up each one, place it in to be tallied – but not added,” he said. “Then at 8 p.m., those will be tallied and counted, and then that night, when the election is over, the winner will win.”

Pennsylvania’s nearly week-long delay in completing its vote count in the 2020 presidential election was cited several times throughout the House floor debate. Following that election, a report from the Pennsylvania Department of State released in 2021 stated that “the single most important recommended change to the Election Code is the expansion of the pre-canvassing period.”

After Wednesday’s 102-99 vote, the bill now heads to the Republican-controlled state Senate, where House Democrats are likely hoping that it will receive a warmer reception in the upper chamber than it did in the House. 

Republicans made a series of arguments in opposition to the bill on Wednesday. Some said it should have included additional election law reforms, like a universal voter ID requirement, while others were more concerned about language in the bill that would remove a requirement that counties begin pre-canvassing at 7 a.m. and continue, without stopping, until all ballots are pre-canvassed. 

State Rep. Doyle Heffley, a Republican from Carbon County, worried that removing that requirement will start and stop the pre-canvassing process at will. “House Bill 847 is misguided because it’s going to allow counties to stop counting the ballots before they’re completed, leading to what we saw in the past where elections offices closed up and went home and came back the next morning to continue counting ballots,” he said. 

House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, characterized Wednesday’s vote as a missed opportunity. 

“It is clear that this chamber can and should be supporting additional election reform opportunities instead of engaging in further missed opportunities,” he said during the debate on the bill.

Matt Bradford, a Democrat who serves as majority leader of the state House, looked to downplay arguments made by Republicans. 

“The idea that pre-canvassing is a Democrat or Republican issue is shameless,” he said, later adding: “This is simply about giving people a timely result in an election so we don’t have what we had in 2020 – the mindless conspiracies, the election denialism.” 

Gov. Josh Shapiro weighed in on the topic of pre-canvassing after Wednesday’s vote, writing in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was glad to see the bill move forward.

“I hope the Senate will follow suit and send this simple, bipartisan reform to improve our elections to my desk so I can sign it into law,” the governor added.