The Commonwealth’s change in voter regulations might have an unexpected consequence; the inability to “call” Pennsylvania’s presidential vote until a few days after the election.
As an important swing state, that possibility could have the whole country on tenterhooks, awaiting a decision.
Voting bureaus cannot begin opening ballots and counting votes until 8 p.m. on election night and have until 9 a.m. on the Friday following the election to tabulate all the votes, said Michael Anderson, Chief Clerk of Voter Registration in Lebanon County.
Anderson attended the county commissioners’ meeting to get approval to purchase two scanners to help count ballots.
The difference this year is an expected large number of absentee and mail-in votes, after a change in Pennsylvania’s voting regulations makes it easier for citizens to use an absentee ballot.
“When they passed this law, Act 77, they built in that we can’t start counting ballots until 8 p.m. because of the concern of ballots being counted before all results are in,” Anderson told the county commissioners Thursday.
During the commissioners’ regular meeting, Anderson asked them to grant funding for two DS-450 scanners and tabulators at a cost of $105,000 to be used to count absentee and mail-in votes.
“I do want two of the 450s to have a backup if the first one doesn’t work,” Anderson said. “As election director, I do want to have backup, because you never know with equipment.”
The commissioners approved the purchase of the scanners.
In 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a directive that all counties had to include a paper-based voting system, and the system had to be implemented in time for the 2020 primary.
Also included in the law is the “Vote At Home” clause, which states that people don’t need an excuse to use a mail-in vote or absentee ballot.
“Now someone can say ‘I don’t want to wait in line,’ so I’ll vote from home,” Anderson said. “That will start in April, with the presidential primary.”
In the past, an absentee ballot could be used by an individual who was either out of the area on election day or had a disability or other physical problem that prevented them from coming to a polling place.
But the new regulations include the ability to use a mail-in ballot if someone simply prefers to vote from home, Anderson explained.
Act 77 changed the actual election code and how mail-in votes and absentee ballots will be processed, Anderson said.
“In the big counties, there are going to be thousands and thousands of absentee ballots to count,” Anderson said. “If there are a lot of paper votes, as expected, Pennsylvania wouldn’t be able to be called until two or three days after the election.”
It’s only a possibility, Anderson told the commissioners, and it all depends on how many people will prefer voting from home.
The most absentee ballots he has seen in the county are about 3,500, but looking at information from other counties, the absentee and mail-in votes could rise to 20 percent of the total vote; in Lebanon County, that would be about 17,000 ballots to count, Anderson said.
“That’s why we need the high-speed scanners; because we’ll be in a real crunch, with just the sheer number of votes we’ll have to count,” Anderson said. “Plus, we’ll have to get all the precinct poll books ready, so we know if someone is eligible to vote.”
County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth asked if Anderson and his staff could find a device to slit open the ballot envelopes in an effort to save time.
Anderson will be looking into that possibility.
“Starting with the primary, now you don’t need an excuse for a mail-in ballot,” Anderson said. “If you want to avoid long lines, you can vote from home. You don’t need to go to a specific precinct.”
Registered voters can go online to complete an application that will go to the county’s voter registration bureau or they can call the bureau for a paper application, fill it out and send it to the county voter registration.
Another significant change is that, while the 60 precincts in the county used to individually tabulate their votes, now the county voter registration bureau is required to tabulate the votes centrally.
This will go into place after the special election on Jan. 14, 2020, when voters from parts of Lebanon, Dauphin, and York counties will select a representative for the 48th Senatorial District.
Candidates for that position are Lebanon County’s District Attorney Republican Dave Arnold and Democrat Michael Schroeder, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College.
Another aspect of the law is that voters only have 15 days to register before an election, instead of the 30 days that had been allowed.
When the county was required to get new voting systems that included paper ballots, Anderson initially asked the county commissioners for $1.7 million to cover the cost of the county-wide voting machines.
So far, the county has spent about $700,000 on new voting equipment, after receiving $140,000 from the federal government in reimbursement. They are also expecting a promised 60 percent of funding reimbursement from the state.
Residents can go to www.votespa.com to register.
Read Our Previous Election Systems Coverage…
Lebanon County meets state deadline to select new voting system (February 12)
New polling places for May 21 primary, last election before new voting machines (May 6)
Regardless of state funding, Lebanon County’s new voting machines will be ready for November (July 11)
County Commissioners approve USB backup drives for new voting machines (August 3)
Zidik re-concedes City Council to Keller, tweaks to new voting system considered (November 19)
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during the previous election cycle. The campaigns of Dave Arnold and Michael Schroeder are advertisers on LebTown at present. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.
An earlier version of this article used “write-in” ballots in a quote when it should have been “mail-in” ballots. We sincerely regret the error.