When will Pennsylvania allow pre-canvassing?
The PA Department of State, in their Report on the 2020 General Election, stated: “As we saw in the days following the 2020 General Election, even with staff working around the clock, counties were not able to finish canvassing their ballots until nearly a week after Election Day. This delay led to the dissemination of misinformation about the reliability and integrity of the election results."
It has been nearly three years since that election and Pennsylvania still has not passed a bill allowing counties in our state to pre-canvass mail-in ballots. In 2024, we will have a presidential primary in spring followed by the General Election in November. Without pre-canvassing we will again experience delays in counting and reporting all our votes.
Pre-canvassing is the opening of mail-in ballots prior to Election Day to separate the envelope from the ballot in preparation for feeding the ballots into vote tabulating machines. Pre-canvassing does not include starting vote tabulation, and it is not uncharted territory. According to Ballotpedia, in the 2022 mid-term election, 42 states and the District of Columbia allowed pre-canvassing. Just eight states, including Pennsylvania, did not.
Support for pre-canvassing.
The PA Department of State asserted in its 2020 General Report that “the single most important recommended change to the Election Code is the expansion of the pre-canvassing period.” It has repeated this assertion on multiple occasions since then.
The bipartisan Election Law Advisory Board (ELAB), established by Act 12 of 2020 of the General Assembly, reported in their Election Law in Pennsylvania Report (June 2021) that allowing pre-canvassing was the highest priority. “The consensus of ELAB members is that advance mail-in ballot processing could resolve many of the problems that contribute to concerns about the validity of votes in Pennsylvania.”
After hearings held during spring 2021, the bipartisan Senate Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform recommended to the Senate and Senate State Government Committee that “the General Assembly consider allowing for the pre-canvassing of mail-in ballots at least three days before Election Day and not later than 8:00 AM on Election Day.”
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), a non-partisan organization that advocates as the unifying voice for all 67 counties, reiterated in their 2023 County Government Priorities the following: “Pre-canvassing and extending the mail-in ballot application deadlines remain the most important changes counties are seeking to improve election administration.” In addition, CCAP provided in-person testimony on these priorities four times to House and Senate State Government Committees and twice to other state government committees.
Lack of a law. No lack of bills.
Despite the House and Senate requesting and receiving numerous reports and testimonies from election advisory groups and outside experts across the state, no legislation has been adopted to allow pre-canvassing. This, even though twelve bills have been proposed that are specific to pre-canvassing alone.
During the 2021-2022 legislative session, seven stand-alone pre-canvassing bills were submitted to the House and Senate State Government Committees. None of these bills were given a pass out of committee before the end of the session; therefore, each bill expired.
In the current 2023-2024 session, five standalone pre-canvassing bills have been submitted to the House and Senate State Government Committees. No actions were taken prior to the summer recess.
A sixth bill, HB 847, received a party line Democratic vote in the House SGC and a first consideration (out of a required three) on the House floor. However, HB 847 is not a standalone pre-canvassing bill. It includes other provisions regarding the handling of mail-in ballots that, even if the House were to pass the bill, would face scrutiny in the Senate that could delay or defeat its passage in the Senate.
Since April 24, 2023, no further action has been taken on HB 847 in the House.
The Legislature needs to act.
A standalone pre-canvassing bill should be a non-controversial bill that both the House and Senate can agree to pass. It only needs to do what this statement from CCAP requests: “Extending the pre-canvassing period to allow ample time for counties to prepare mail-in and absentee ballots for tabulation so that accurate results can be provided as soon as possible.”
The result will be mitigation of unnecessary stress on election administrators and workers and multi-day delays finishing vote tallies across Pennsylvania’s counties.
It is hard work running elections. The pains of the 2020 General Election must be alleviated, not repeated. Surely the Legislature can find a bipartisan way to pass a pre-canvassing bill to do this. But time is getting short.