Schmidt: Pennsylvania elections never been more secure

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s voting laws limit when counties can start to prepare mail-in ballots for counting.

The consequence is that results aren’t known on election day.

“Right now, they can’t (pre-canvas ballots) until 7 a.m. on election day,” Sen. Steve Santasiero, D-Doylestown, said during Wednesday’s Senate budget hearing with the Department of State. “In a high-turnout election, such as a presidential (election), it really does make it nearly impossible for the larger counties like Philadelphia or the collar counties around Philly to pre-canvas and count all those votes by election night.”

Though Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt declined to suggest specific reforms for the voting law, he emphasized that county boards of election would benefit from getting more time.

“The counties would be grateful for any additional time in advance of election day,” Schmidt said. “That’s not scanning the result of a single ballot. It’s about doing everything else that’s required: the review of the declaration envelope and sufficiency; the opening declaration envelope; extraction of the secrecy envelope; open the secrecy envelope; extraction of the ballot, all that is really what takes a lot of time.”

Actually counting the ballots, he said, goes “pretty quickly.” Even if counties weren’t allowed to start counting, Schmidt said doing the prep work “would still reduce significantly the amount of time to process those ballots.”

The secretary also noted that counties since 2020 have added equipment that helps them process ballots quicker. A drop in mail-in ballots, too, from 50% of votes in 2020 to 35% in recent elections should help speed up the process, too.

Though Democrats in Pennsylvania have been more supportive of mail-in voting and earlier ballot pre-canvassing than Republicans, this divide isn’t repeated in other states.

“Some states allow that to go on for much longer, whether they’re red states or blue states,” Schmidt said. “There are plenty of states that allow county election administrations to begin processing mail-in ballots in advance of election day so that it can be done with observers present in a more methodical way — as opposed to having workers in shifts working 24 hours a day, as they are in some counties.”

He suggested that at least three days to do the work would be good. “They would be grateful for three hours,” Schmidt added.

Of election-related lawsuits, the secretary noted that counties are paying a “significant” litigation burden, both in money and in time. But he also noted that those lawsuits “have a purpose.”

“Whenever there are things unclear in the law … that is really where our disputes should be settled,” Schmidt said. “They shouldn’t be settled in a confrontational way outside a polling place — the courts are the appropriate venue.”

Throughout his testimony, he emphasized the integrity of elections in the commonwealth.

“The department makes, through our Ready to Vote campaign, we have something focused on making sure that everybody knows that elections in Pennsylvania have never been more fair, never been more safe, and never been more secure,” Schmidt said.

He noted the election system has a verifiable paper ballot for every vote, goes through two post-election audits, and heralded “very significant” improvements to election integrity in recent years.

“It’s important that we tell the truth about elections,” Schmidt said.