Campaigns & Elections

County commissioners working to apply lessons from primary to general election

The race is on to make the state’s 2024 election results as safe and secure as the 2020 one – without the attendant controversy


At the start of 2024, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states allowed pre-canvassing – the act of opening, processing and tallying mail-in ballots prior to Election Day; Pennsylvania was not among them, despite a clear need for such legislation, thanks to an unprecedented vote-counting delay in the 2020 election that was used as fodder for dozens of Big Lie efforts to overturn the presidential race.

In the commonwealth, the 2020 election saw the use of no-excuse mail-in balloting increase dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Philadelphia saw its highest voter turnout in 25 years, and with essentially an even split between mail ballots and votes cast at the polls, the nation was forced to wait until the Saturday after Election Day – five days later – to hear the deciding tally. Former President Donald Trump and his allies seized the extended counting period to spread false election fraud claims and sow distrust among the electorate. 

Now, four years later, pre-canvassing – or lack thereof – in Pennsylvania could yet again make a major difference in the commonwealth’s election and how quickly results come in. 

Mail-in mania

The 2020 election, particularly in Pennsylvania was a “trial by fire” – thanks in no small part to then-new legislation – David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, told City & State.

The state legislature passed Act 77 in 2019 during the Wolf administration, with the bipartisan voting reform implementing the most sweeping expansion of voting access the commonwealth had seen in decades – including no-excuse mail-in voting and widespread use of paper-fed voting machines. Interpretation of the law led to litigation regarding eligibility of certain mail-in ballots, such as those with incorrect, illegible or missing dates, leading to the state Supreme Court extending the due date for pre-election-postmarked mail ballots from 8 p.m. on Election Day to three days after the polls close. 

“Election officials were already dealing with a lot of change, all for the good, getting voters more choices, making elections more secure and auditable and transparent – and then the pandemic hit. Whereas Pennsylvanians might have been expected to adopt mail-in voting at a fairly limited rate since they were unfamiliar with it, all of a sudden, demand for mail-voting in a pandemic environment skyrocketed,” Becker said. “Despite all of that, and despite all of the disinformation that was spread about the elections … Pennsylvania’s elections were run extraordinarily well in 2020 and withstood more scrutiny than any election in Pennsylvania history.”

The baseless election fraud claims culminated in people on both sides of the election-denial front coming to Philadelphia as the deciding votes were being tallied, with Trump allies and supporters spreading more conspiracies about how the city and state were allegedly tilting the election in Democrats’ favor. 

“People said we were taking out mail-in ballots and dropping them off to a mobster in Atlantic City,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir told City & State. “That’s fool’s talk.”

Fraud claim fallout

Among the collateral damage of the Big Lie efforts of election denialists in the aftermath of the 2020 election: election and polling staffing concerns. 

“One concern that I have spoken about time and time again is the significant turnover among election officials at the county level in Pennsylvania since 2020,” Al Schmidt, secretary of the commonwealth and a target of harassment in 2020 when he was the Republican City Commissioner in Philadelphia, told City & State. 

Secretary of State Al Schmidt experienced harassment related to the 2020 election.
Secretary of State Al Schmidt experienced harassment related to the 2020 election. Photo credit: Lynsey Addario/Getty Images

Now overseeing the state’s election operations as Secretary of State for the Shapiro administration, Schmidt and others said a key to ensuring a smooth 2024 election is having well-trained, well-informed election officials and poll workers. 

“I think that we have seen more challenges in recent years because these are your friends and neighbors who are coming (into polling places) and are sometimes bullying at best and threatening at worst,” Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association, said. “That’s not really an atmosphere anybody wants to spend time in, no matter how much they appreciate doing their civic duty.”

According to a Votebeat and Spotlight PA analysis of county data, in total, 58 officials who served during the November 2019 election have left their position as of late February 2024, meaning the state has 21% fewer years of experience than it did for the November 2019 election.

Despite concerns about 2020 misinformation and intimidation leading to a vicious cycle within the world of election operations, officials said a combination of new and old workers, both with more experience with the Act 77 changes from 2019, are getting the job done. 

“Pennsylvanians are getting more familiar with these early absentee or early mail-in voting options, and those reduce a lot of the pressure to find poll workers,” Becker said. “It depends on how many Pennsylvanians choose to vote and then to see whether or not the supply of poll workers can meet the (demand of the) remaining ones who want to show up and vote in person.”

Case for canvassing

The commonwealth’s cumbersome counting process, which created a longer window for election-deniers to cast doubt on the results in 2020, was mainly a result of the inability to pre-sort, or pre-canvass, ballots. Currently, county election boards may begin the canvassing process at 7 a.m. on Election Day, coinciding with the in-person election. 

Schaefer said opening, processing, and tallying ballots ahead of time allows election workers to better leverage their time and resources on Election Day and have the mail-in ballots ready to be counted when polls close. 

“The biggest changes we’ve been asking for with Act 77 have been to extend that pre-canvassing period to give us time prior to the election to process mail-in ballots, and then also to extend the application deadline for the mail-in ballot,” Schaefer said. “We know that there are a lot of other things that still need clarity and a lot of other things that still need to be fixed and cleaned up in the law. But something like pre-canvassing gives us at the county extra days (and) helps us balance our workloads a lot better.” 

                 A Trump supporter in Philadelphia while votes were being counted in 2020.
A Trump supporter in Philadelphia while votes were being counted in 2020. Photo credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Schaefer added that while recruitment and retention remain a top concern, this year’s April primary election proved to be a “very smooth election with very few issues.” She noted, however, that voter turnout during the presidential election in November is expected to be much higher than it was for the April primary. 

“Quite frankly, doing that during the primaries might be a lot different than in a high-turnout, high-profile presidential election in the state,” Schaefer said. “If we could get that extra time, it’ll help our counties, help them balance their resources and help us be in a better place to ensure timely results on election night.”

Seth Bluestein, the Republican Philadelphia City Commissioner who took over Schmidt’s role in the city’s voting operations, emphasized the importance of allowing pre-canvassing not only to assist election workers but also to ensure the timeframe for bad actors to cast doubt on the election results is as short as possible. 

“Pre-canvassing may not have been essential for the primary because we had 19% turnout, but when we have 60% to 70% turnout, pre-canvassing can have a much bigger impact,” Bluestein told City & State. “That window of opportunity for misinformation and disinformation can really be shrunk down significantly.”

Schmidt pointed out that many states, both red and blue, have allowedpre-canvassing, and that Pennsylvania remains one of the few outliers when it comes to its election laws. 

The counties have to be the adults in the room ... about what is the right thing to do.
– Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County elections director

“I would hate to look up to a state like Florida, given its history with elections in previous decades, but even states like Florida allow for mail-in ballot pre-canvassing,” Schmidt said. “It’s about processing ballots in a way that is thoughtful, that is organized, that is not hurried and is conducted with integrity, which everybody wants.”

Forrest Lehman, director of elections in Lycoming County, noted that any focus on canvassing ballots on Election Day takes away bandwidth from operating the in-person election process. He said even for smaller counties with less mail-in ballots to count, allowing up to three days of pre-canvassing would make a major difference. 

“Even the three days of flexibility would be valuable for a small county like mine because then I don’t have to have my attention divided on Election Day, having two elections at once,” Lehman told City & State. “If there was some sort of legal or procedural issue with the pre-canvassing, it’s possible that (process) could end up (being) halted entirely … I just can’t do anything with it while the polls are open.”

Presidential power: part II

There’s no telling how close this year’s presidential election will be or how many votes may decide the difference in Pennsylvania. But election officials do know there is a need for a trusted election process that produces timely results. 

The Third Circuit recently ruled on litigation surrounding mail-in ballots with a missing or incorrect handwritten date. It found that federal law does not require such ballots to be counted. The date requirement is likely to be appealed before the November election. 

The Democrat-led state House recently voted along party lines to pass a standalone pre-canvassing bill. 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. 

Republicans made a series of arguments in opposition to the bill during the May 8 debate. 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. 

Senate Republicans have sought to get a constitutional amendment to expand voter ID requirements on the ballot since the beginning of last year, making the case that any election reform legislation should include a form of voter ID. 

“Ensuring voter confidence and the security of elections remain our top priorities,” a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said in a statement to Votebeat. “As such, any discussion of changes to the administration of elections in our commonwealth must also include a constitutional voter identification requirement.”

Republicans did pass a bill that would have allowed additional pre-canvassing time in 2021, when they controlled both chambers in Harrisburg, but then-Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill due to the voter ID requirements that were attached to pre-canvassing. 

Now, with HB 847 in the GOP-led Senate, few in the elections space expect the legislation to see the light of day, let alone have it make its way to Shapiro’s desk in time for the November election. 

Schaefer believes the “dynamic in the General Assembly is not conducive” to getting such an election reform passed. 

Nonetheless, county and election officials, alongside poll workers presiding over the Election Day process, are confident that the system can handle anything that the 2020 rematch may throw at them. 

“It’s also about minimizing that window of opportunity for bad faith actors to undermine confidence in the election results,” Schmidt said, noting that whatever legal or legislative changes occur, they must be done in a timely manner – much like the tallying of votes – to create the best possible situation for everyone on the ground. 

“Nobody likes last-minute changes. It’s not fair to voters, it’s not fair to election directors, or anyone else,” Schmidt said. “Whether it’s the legislation or court decisions, it’s important that those be timely and (decided) well enough before Election Day so that counties can prepare.”

Lehman painted a starker assessment of the lack of movement coming from Harrisburg, adding that the state legislature has the authority and tools to provide clarification even amid the ongoing litigation. Lehman, saying there’s a “structural problem” when it comes to the legislature working with the governor on election issues, said officials in his position are tired of getting put in the middle of partisan politics. 

“I can tell you after several years of this: Counties are sick of being caught in the middle of it. We’re sick of listening to state-level actors browbeat us for allegedly being inconsistent in how we approach these issues,” Lehman said. “The reason we’re not doing it the same way is because the governor and the legislature have never sat down and addressed these issues in the code. And until they address the inconsistencies in statute, they’ve completely lost all credibility to criticize the counties for doing things differently.

“The counties have to be the adults in the room,” he added, “and make our own good-faith determinations about what is the right thing to do.”