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There’s Still Time to Strengthen Pennsylvania’s Election Process

As the 2024 election rapidly approaches, Pennsylvania’s voters deserve to feel confident in the processes and systems they’ll use next November. All eyes will be on Pennsylvania and a handful of other battleground states, making it even more critical that this election runs securely and smoothly. The Pennsylvania legislature must act to provide election officials with the necessary resources and tools to meet the expected demand for absentee balloting and avoid unnecessary delays in election results that risk eroding trust in results.

While partisan divides on voting methods emerged over the last several election cycles, Pennsylvanian voters who choose to cast a mail-in or absentee ballot before election day should have their votes included in the election night returns. Pennsylvania is one of a few states, particularly among battleground states, that bars election officials from pre-canvassing absentee ballots before election day. This policy significantly slows the reporting of election results in high-turnout elections.

To help improve public confidence in election results, the legislature should permit election offices to begin pre-canvassing ballots – preparing them for tabulation – at least seven days before election day.  Allowing election officials to pre-canvass ballots provides additional time to verify voter eligibility, remove ballots from security envelopes, and prepare the ballots for counting. More ballots will be ready to be tabulated after the polls close on election day, expediting the release of more complete results with greater efficiency, speed, and accuracy.

Starting the work before election day enables election administrators more time to plan workflows, troubleshoot unexpected issues that may arise, and communicate directly with voters.  Thirty-eight states, including Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, allow ballot pre-canvassing. Pennsylvania’s election administrators have long argued the change would enable the Commonwealth to report its election results more quickly, and the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania supports extending pre-canvassing time.

Pre-canvassing helps election officials give voters information about the status of their ballot and opportunities to correct discrepancies. Voters occasionally make mistakes when filling out their ballot envelopes, underscoring the importance of clear and consistent standards for correcting errors. Voters in twenty-four states can correct — or “cure”— problems on their ballot envelope. Since 2020, states including Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Texas have codified ballot curing.

In Pennsylvania, ballot curing is not equally available to all voters; it is left to the discretion of county officials and is often dependent on the availability of resources. Discretionary decision-making in election policy creates opportunities for voters to question the fairness of the process. The availability, process, and timeline to cure ballots should be the same for all Pennsylvania voters.   Codifying one ballot curing standard is essential to uphold election integrity and voter access.

Pennsylvania should also codify a straightforward process and standards for missing or incorrect dates and so-called “naked ballots.” In January, the Pennsylvania Commonwealths Joints State Government Commission released bipartisan policy recommendations to improve the administration of elections, including a proposal to clarify that a voter’s failure to date a ballot will not be the sole basis to disqualify a ballot and that voters will have an opportunity to cure such simple mistakes.

The commission also recommends that the legislature eliminate the requirement that ballots without a secrecy envelope not be counted, as Pennsylvania is one of only sixteen states requiring secrecy envelopes. Current Pennsylvania law requires that a mail ballot lacking a secrecy envelope be set aside and not counted. Ballot secrecy is a cornerstone of the democratic process, and voters should have access to secrecy envelopes. However, mistakenly forgetting the envelope should not eliminate one’s vote.  Secrecy envelopes are inconsequential to a ballot’s eligibility and should not deprive voters of the franchise.

Allowing more time for pre-canvassing and codifying the ballot cure process are common sense and time-tested policies with broad bipartisan support from the Joint State Government Commission, Pennsylvania’s County Commissioners, and bipartisan election officials nationwide. Pennsylvania has an opportunity to shore up election policy ahead of 2024, but time is short, and the time to act is now. Election administrators need time to implement changes and educate voters.

State Representative Joe Webster represents Montgomery County’s  150th Legislative District in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Kim Wyman is a Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and Former Washington Secretary of State.

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