There may be no state that received as much attention in the aftermath of the 2020 general election as Pennsylvania. The state ultimately decided the presidency, handing Joe Biden his first presidential victory –and it became the target of lawsuits seeking to decertify the state’s election results – efforts that were ultimately tossed by the courts.
With another crucial election looming this November, a state House committee tasked with reviewing the state’s election laws on Wednesday heard from election officials, who walked through their preparations for the midterm elections and offered input to legislators on future changes to the state’s election laws.
Officials also praised a new election integrity grant program signed into law over the summer and detailed the ways they’re attempting to keep elections secure and combat election-related misinformation.
Election officials laud new election integrity grant program
The new Election Integrity Grant Program, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in July, received high praise from election officials who testified before the House State Government Committee on Wednesday.
The $45 million program provides counties with grants that can be used for a range of purposes, including paying election officials and staff, security and transparency costs associated with vote-counting, the printing of ballots, and the transportation and storage of voting equipment.
Leigh Chapman, the Wolf administration’s acting secretary of state, called the program a historic investment that will better equip counties for election-related costs. “The Election Integrity Grant Program funding is a historic investment of state dollars in election administration,” Chapman told lawmakers during the hearing. “It should enable counties to obtain the staff and equipment they need to efficiently process and tabulate ballots.”
The lone county official to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, Dauphin County Director of Registration & Elections Gerald Feaser, thanked lawmakers for approving the funding, and said it would help counties meet requirements outlined in the state’s election laws.
“That money will enable us to lean forward and get further ahead to better serve our voters and prepare for elections, rather than continuing to just play catch-up,” Feaser said. “It will address a lot of the counties’ needs when it comes to personnel and equipment to meet the objectives of Act 88” – the law that created the Election Integrity Grant Program.
On top of the money allocated by the state grant program, counties will also receive federal funding to help them run elections. Chapman said the federal Help America Vote Act will provide counties with approximately $1.1 million for the entire state, which will be distributed based on the number of registered voters in each county.
That money can be used to implement the new Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors system, and for election security costs, according to Chapman.
Department of State working to combat election misinformation
Chapman said the Department of State is working to proactively combat election-related misinformation, likely in response to the flood of false claims about Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results that occurred two years ago.
She said the department’s efforts include detecting and reporting false information on various media platforms, and providing training to counties to help them “report that misinformation and disinformation to the appropriate entities.”
The Department of State will be directing all counties to complete a risk-limiting audit of their election results before votes are certified – the first time the department has issued such a directive. Chapman said the audits alone could help quell concerns about election integrity and security.
“Implementing best practice changes” – such as these audits – “to our election processes and procedures is one way the department works to combat the misinformation and disinformation Pennsylvania voters can encounter about election administration in the commonwealth,” she said.
Chapman said getting out in front of potential myths about the state’s elections is crucial to making sure voters have reliable information.
“‘Pre-bunking’ and combating misinformation and disinformation is one of the department’s top priorities,” she said.
Local official gives lawmakers guidance on election law changes
While Wednesday’s testifiers praised the $45 million grant program approved by lawmakers and signed into law by Wolf, they also emphasized that more changes are needed to improve the state’s election laws.
The top priority for the Department of State is giving counties more time to pre-canvass – or open and count – mail ballots ahead of Election Day, Chapman said. Current law allows counties to begin the pre-canvassing process no earlier than 7 p.m. on Election Day, unlike other states, where election workers have days, and even weeks, to process ballots prior to an election.
Chapman said Pennsylvania’s election results would likely be known sooner if counties were given a wider window to pre-canvass ballots. But without that fix, Pennsylvanians won’t know the final results of the races on election night this year.
“We are not going to have unofficial returns on election night in Pennsylvania. It’s just a fact because there’s limitations when it comes to pre-canvassing,” she said. “If we did have that ample pre-canvassing, I think it would help with confidence in our election results because everybody wants election results sooner.”
“Until we have that, we just have to manage expectations the best we can,” Chapman said.
Feaser also echoed a desire for more time to pre-canvass ballots, adding that even allowing counties to take ballots out of outer envelopes could improve the speed at which ballots get counted.
“One issue that we do agree (on) is the need for earlier pre-canvassing,” Feaser said. “Even if we define pre-canvassing as just allowing us to open the outer envelope, you will literally cut in half the amount of time counties need on election morning, beginning at 7 a.m., to begin the process of getting the ballots out of the inner envelopes.”
Since the passage of the state’s mail-in voting law in 2019, county commissioners have asked state officials to provide counties with more time to pre-canvass ballots, but Wolf and Republicans who control the legislature have yet to reach an agreement to expand the state’s pre-canvassing window.
State Rep. Seth Grove, the chair of the House State Government Committee, has sponsored an omnibus election reform bill that would increase the amount of time for counties to pre-canvass ballots, but it also included provisions that Wolf opposed, such as universal voter ID and signature verification requirements. That bill was ultimately vetoed by Wolf.
Wolf and lawmakers were able to reach an agreement on the election grant program this summer, but both sides bemoan the lack of consensus on even more election law changes.
“It’s frustrating to me that we haven’t had a comprehensive deal on a lot of these election issues that probably could stem a lot of the concerns counties have,” Grove said.