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Review of primary prompts elections agency to seek changes

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s state elections agency is asking lawmakers to require counties to distribute mail-in ballots earlier for the 2020 General Election and beyond, based on its review of how the greatly expanded mail-in system performed during the June 2 primary.

Current law mandates that mail-in ballots be sent out at least two weeks ahead of election day, although some counties provide them to voters weeks earlier.

The Department of State’s review of the primary also argues the Legislature should permit ballots to be counted if they arrive in county election offices by the Friday after the election, as long as they were postmarked by election day. The current deadline for counties to receive them is 8 p.m. on election day.

The 43-page report, ordered by the Legislature shortly after the primary, says counties should be allowed to begin handling ballots three weeks ahead of election day in the “pre-canvass” process. A Department of State spokeswoman said Monday the goal is to permit counties to prepare ballots for scanning, including opening envelopes and verifying eligibility, to have them ready to be scanned the day of the election.

“The counties overwhelmingly support this reform, and we hope the Legislature shares this priority and will pass this amendment before counties finalize and begin sending ballots in early September,” the report said.

Jason Gottesman, spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said the report could feed into changes in state election law.

“We are currently reviewing existing legislative proposals to see how they may fit into this report and make elections safe, fair and the results reported in a timely manner this fall,” Gottesman said Monday.

The elections agency also recommended that counties be given more latitude in how they hire poll workers to fill vacancies. The pandemic has caused shortages of poll workers, a job that can be difficult to fill in normal times.

The Department of State concluded the primary “reaffirmed the durability of our democracy,” as it was held amid the pandemic and protests over racial injustice, with greatly expanded mail-in balloting and many counties using new voting systems for the first time.

The agency found there were fewer reports of significant incidents “than reported in many comparable prior elections.” About 1.3 million people voted during the primary in person, and about 1.5 million voted by mail under rules that allowed it for the first time without the voter providing a reason he or she could not vote in person.

The report, issued Saturday, found 39 instances in which completed mail-in ballots were improperly returned in person to the county by someone other than the voter.

In Mercer County, a care home administrator turned in nine residents’ ballots, but those votes were not allowed to be counted. Lycoming County permitted about 20 ballots to be returned by the voters’ spouses, an improper practice that has been stopped for future elections, the report said.

Nearly 2,000 ballots were sent to voters with the wrong political party, so new ballots were issued. About 4,000 voters in Montgomery County were provided the wrong ballot style, so those voters were told they had to obtain a replacement in person at county elections offices, or cast provisional ballots. The report blamed that problem on the county’s mail vendor.

Voting machine problems were “relatively few,” the report said, occurring in 27 counties.

“All but three counties reported only isolated issues with scanners or ballot-marking devices that were quickly resolved through maintenance or replacement,” the report said.

The rest were described as “isolated errors” that included replacing ink cartridges, cleaning and calibrating adjustments, paper jams, battery failure and “errors in opening the polls and other minor poll worker errors.”

Lawmakers voted to postpone the primary election from April 28 during a spike in coronavirus cases, and a flood of voters opted to cast ballots by mail to protect themselves from getting infected.

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