House approves bill to move pre-canvassing date back for mail-in ballots

On election night in 2020, Donald Trump had a sizable lead in Pennsylvania.

That lead turned out to be a mirage due to the way that mail-in ballots are counted in Pennsylvania.

Currently, pre-canvassing those ballots — physically removing them from the secrecy and mail envelopes and then counting them — cannot start until 7 a.m. Election Day, according to state law.

A bill aimed at moving back that date — HB 847 — passed on a party-line vote last Wednesday in the state House.

“With more and more people voting by mail-in ballot, tabulating ballots and releasing election results is taking county boards of elections much longer,” Rep. Scott Conlkin, the bill’s prime sponsor, said in a legislative memo. “In House State Government Committee hearings we heard from numerous experts, including county election officials from both parties, who testified that our state should allow counties to pre-canvass mail and absentee ballots much earlier than the morning of the election.

“Many believe that delays in tabulating election returns can lead to voter suspicion and unfounded conspiracies.”

The version of the bill that cleared the House would expand that pre-canvass window back one week.

“Allowing counties to pre-canvass mail ballots would significantly expedite the availability of election results,” Conklin argued. “Legislative action is needed to give counties the time they need to address the enormous volume of mail-in ballots expected to be cast in future elections, especially the upcoming 2024 presidential election.

“We need to ensure that Pennsylvania does not become a national embarrassment on Election Day.”

The bill faces an uncertain future as it proceeds to the GOP-controlled Senate.

Republican Leader Bryan Cutler was critical of what he called a “standalone” bill that addresses “their pre-canvassing ‘White Whale.'”

“House Democrats passed a standalone bill extending pre-canvassing time without including other popular comprehensive election reform measures like requiring voters to show identification each time they vote,” Cutler said in a statement after the vote.

“House Democrats pushing this bill forward today may make government easier for the government, but it does not respond to what the vast majority of Pennsylvanians believe is needed to make our elections better and more secure.”

Cutler then made the argument for voter identification.

“Polling in April showed requiring identification each time a person votes is not only widely supported, but is broadly believed to be a commonsense election reform that will increase confidence in the conduct of Pennsylvania’s elections,” he said. “Signature verification, according to recent polling, is one of the most universally supported election reforms and mirrors in-person election day practices.”

He called for action on a constitutional amendment proposal on that issue.

“With 100 signatures on the voter identification constitutional amendment discharge petition, it is clear House Democrats need to get out of their own way and put up this easily achievable election reform for a vote in the House.”


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