Election Year ‘Reforms” Have Officials Worried

Member Group : Center Square

By Kim Jarrett

An election reform bill passed and signed into law last year will create some uncertainty and possible added expenses to this year’s elections, county elections officials told the Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Commission.

Act 77 allows voters to mail in their ballots during a 50-day window before the election and changes the way they will be counted. Timothy Benyo, chief clerk for the Lehigh County Office of the Election Board, used the word “uncertainty” to describe what election officials are facing.

“We don’t know how many ballots we are going to need to send out,” Benyo said. “We don’t know how many ballots are going to be returned. We don’t know how many people are going to show up at the polls.”

“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,” said Forrest Lehman, director of elections for Lycoming County.

The mail-in and absentee ballots may also cause delays in reporting results on election nights. The ballots must be counted in one central location on election night instead of at each precinct, possibly leaving some races undecided on election night. The delay could be longer in the one-third of Pennsylvania counties that will be using new voting machines for the first time during the April 28 presidential primary.

“I think we will be OK, but I have a lot of sympathy for the counties who have to roll out their new equipment and who have to comply with Act 77 at the same time,” Lehman said.

Election officials also expressed concerns about the costs of mail-in ballots.

“We don’t know how many mail-in ballots and absentee ballots we are going to receive,” said Joe Kantz, Snyder County Board of Commissioners Chairman and co-chair of the Elections Reform Committee of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “And it may seem like a minuscule financial issue, but counties have no way of knowing how much postage we need to budget for.”

Lehman also said having separate envelopes for mail-in and absentee ballots is an additional cost.

Sen. Kristin Phillip-Hill asked Lehman how to balance voter’s rights with the costs of special elections.

“I think one fact that often gets lost in the discussion about how long a seat goes vacant or what is lost by not having that seat occupied is that while there is a vacancy, those offices remain open and there are many basic constituent services that are still able to be provided,” Lehman said.

Kantz said he understood both sides but, “As a person who is represented in my county by two state representatives who actually went through a special election this past year in 2019, I also know how important it is to me as a commissioner to get to my state representative or my state senator in a very timely fashion.”

A special election to replace former Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell for her 190th district seat is scheduled for Feb. 25. Three special elections will be held March 17 to fill seats in the 8th, 18th and 58th legislative districts.