(The Center Square) – In the most alarming, early days of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers around the country pondered moving their primary and general election voting to more of a mail-focused exercise. The idea was that it might help prevent the spread of the disease while still allowing democratic norms to continue.
For Pennsylvania, it was a particularly appealing but fraught option – the state had just legalized general mail-in balloting, without having to provide a reason for requesting such a ballot. But county election officials had already expressed concern about being ready to receive a flood of mail-in votes, and that was before the potential for pandemic worries to further spike its usage.
“County voter registration offices do not have the staff or resources to serve as an early in-person vote center, and that is what Act 77 is going to turn us into,” Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County’s director of elections, said at a January hearing of the Senate Majority Policy Committee.
As the nation this week found itself impatiently waiting for Pennsylvania to complete its vote count for the presidential race, potentially delivering the presidency either to President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, it became evident that those local election officials’ concerns were well-warranted.
Even with that collision of circumstances, there was still an opportunity to avoid a long, dragged out vote count, voting officials said. They called upon state lawmakers and the governor to agree to allow “pre-canvassing,” a process in which mailed-in ballots could be prepared for faster counting come Election Day. The process would have seen election officials perform certain clerical tasks with the ballots as they came in during the weeks before Nov. 3 so that the act of actually counting votes would proceed much more quickly.
But the leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf were fruitless in their efforts to negotiate an agreement to allow pre-canvassing. Weeks of public sniping and private discussions failed to lead to a deal.
“I understand they put out a press release saying that [negotiations are] dead,” Wolf told reporters Oct. 19. “So I’m taking them at their word."
“Given that the governor has not put anything on the table that can get through our caucus and has once again removed himself from the process of discussing the issue, we have no plans at this time to consider changes to the Election Code that will affect the upcoming election,” House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said the same day.
The state House of Representatives had passed a bill Sept. 2 that allowed pre-canvassing, but the legislation also contained what Wolf considered “poison-pill” provisions, including banning drop boxes and forbidding the counting of ballots received after Election Day that were postmarked before the deadline Nov. 3.
So Wolf threatened to veto that bill, and with no path toward becoming law, it was never even taken up in the state Senate. And that was as close as Pennsylvania got to avoiding the harsh national spotlight.
Addressing the failed negotiations in October, Wolf insisted there was still time to get something done.
“Both the Senate and the House are in town this week,” Wolf said. “If the will were there, we could do something this week. As long as we aren’t doing this after 7 a.m. on Election Day, anything that we decide would be a benefit to the counties. So yeah, there is time.”
But, as it turned out, that time passed without further action, leaving the rest of the nation waiting on Pennsylvania.