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Flood of mail-in ballots spurs fight to change deadlines

HARRISBURG - Some county and state officials are warning that a flood of mailed-in ballots in Pennsylvania -- fueled by fears of in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic -- will create problems in Tuesday’s primary election that must be fixed before they cause a disaster in this battleground state in November’s presidential election.

For one, they are warning that there will be no way to produce timely election results in November unless the law changes to allow counties to process mailed-in ballots before Election Day. Even in Tuesday’s relatively low-turnout primary election, election night results might be unlikely in closely contested races, they say.

“No one wants to be in the situation where the U.S. presidential race is coming down to Pennsylvania and there is a week or two delay on us in delivering a victor,” said state Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia.

Boyle plans to sponsor legislation to give counties more time to process the ballots, starting the Saturday before the election.

Boyle, with support from county election directors, pushed for a similar change in March when lawmakers voted to delay the primary election by five weeks to June 2. However, it lacked support from Republicans who control the House and Senate majorities.

Of more immediate concern is the question of whether voters can mail their ballots back to county election offices in time to be counted in Tuesday’s primary election. The deadline in state law is 8 p.m. on election night.

But some ballots are still in the mail to voters, less than a week before the primary election. A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson said most first-class mail is delivered in two to five days, but the Postal Service recommends that voters mail their ballots at least one week before the deadline to have them delivered to county election officials.

Montgomery County asked the state Commonwealth Court for an emergency order Wednesday granting seven additional days for ballots postmarked no later than Election Day to arrive and be counted. So far, other efforts to that effect in lower courts have failed.

In the meantime, some counties are working to provide alternatives - such as posting drop boxes in strategic locations - to voters who have not mailed in their ballots yet.

More than 1.8 million voters have requested a mail-in or absentee ballot by this past Tuesday’s deadline, according to state officials. More than 730,000 have been returned, state figures show.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, said her estimate for the number of applications had been “blown out of the water” and that she at least hoped to work with lawmakers to change the law before the November election.

More than 3.2 million people cast ballots in the 2016 primary election when the presidential nominations were still contested. This year, the nominations are uncontested, lowering expectations for turnout.

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said county election directors had been unified in urging state lawmakers to let them process mailed-in ballots before election day, even before the pandemic hit.

“We need to adjust our expectations that it’s going to be possible to have final results in the same manner that we’ve become accustomed to, unless we change the law for the general and future elections,” Schaefer said.

Tuesday is the first election in Pennsylvania in which the option of no-excuse mail-in ballots are available to voters following a sweeping election reform law signed in October by Wolf.

Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, who chairs the House committee that handles election issues, said the primary election will have to serve as a test tube of sorts for how counties can handle all the mail-in ballots.

The idea to let counties process mailed-in ballots before Election Day has run into concerns from Republicans that vote totals would leak out early, Everett said.

On one hand, everyone may need to get used to a longer wait time to get an election result, Everett said. On the other, any problems in the primary election may solidify support among Republicans to change the law before November’s presidential election, Everett said.

“This is going to be our experiment to see what we may need to do to fine-tune for the fall,” Everett said.

Processing work on mail in ballots for the Pennsylvania Primary election is being done by Tim Vernick at the Butler County Bureau of Elections, Thursday, May 28, in Butler. Some county and state officials are warning that a flood of mailed-in ballots in Pennsylvania, fueled by fears of in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic, will create a number of problems in Tuesday's primary election that must be fixed before they cause a disaster in this battleground state in November's presidential election. AP PHOTO/KEITH SRAKOCIC
A worker walks past old ballot drop boxes at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election, Wednesday, in Doylestown AP PHOTO/MATT SLOCUM
Chet Harhut, deputy manager, of the Allegheny County Division of Elections, wheels a dolly loaded with mail-in ballots, at the division of elections offices in downtown Pittsburgh Wednesday, May 27, 2020. The once-delayed June 2, Pennsylvania primary will feature legislative and congressional races, a first run for some new paper-record voting systems and the inaugural use of newly legalized mail-in ballots. AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR
Bucks County commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia, left, and Robert Harvie unpack a new ballot drop box at the county's administration building prior to the primary election, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Doylestown. AP PHOTO/MATT SLOCUM