Lebanon County Department of Elections head Michael Anderson made an appearance at a hearing conducted by the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee last week, where he shared his experiences with the state’s system of registered voters and his thoughts on aspects of the state election code that need to change.
Thursday’s hearing was the second in the committee’s review of 2020 election administration in Pennsylvania. While Democratic lawmakers have expressed doubt about the need for the review, committee chair Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) said the aim of the review — which includes a total of 12 more scheduled hearings — is not to relitigate the 2020 election, but to take a comprehensive look into how it was carried out and what improvements could be made in the future.
Anderson was tapped to appear on a virtual panel alongside Tim Benyo, the chief clerk of the Lehigh County Elections Board, and Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz. Their appearances were followed by testimony from Jonathan Marks, the commonwealth’s deputy secretary for elections and commissions.
Anderson told LebTown that earlier in his tenure, he had informal discussions about potential election reforms with former state Senator Mike Folmer, who led the State Government Committee in the Senate at the time. During those conversations, Anderson made it known to Folmer and his staffers that he would always be willing to answer any questions Harrisburg lawmakers had about election administration, Anderson said — which is exactly what he did on Thursday.
The hearing specifically focused on county officials’ experience with the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, or SURE system.
The SURE system is the official database of registered voters in Pennsylvania, and it also is used to assist counties in preparing absentee ballots by doing things like printing mailing labels. The system was adopted in the early 2000s, and county election officials saw glitches and errors ahead of the November 2020 election that slowed down processing or required more manual labor from election workers. The Pennsylvania Department of State plans to overhaul and modernize the system next year, according to Marks, with input from the counties being taken into account.
As Anderson delivered his testimony and took questions from lawmakers, he spoke to the concerns he and his fellow election directors had with the SURE system last year, but in doing so he emphasized positive thinking and the upcoming improvements.
“There is a, you know, a large frustration with the SURE system as far as just us trying to be productive workers and getting everything done and SURE being slow, or going down, or not working correctly,” Anderson said. “I try to be a positive thinker … there is a SURE modernization project that is coming down the road for implementation next year, and that’s where my focus will be on — to help any way I can to try to make the new SURE system work for the counties.”
Anderson told LebTown that, despite the glitches, the SURE system worked well overall for last year’s elections when taking its age into consideration. The Department of State hasn’t gone into specifics about what the update to the system will look like, Anderson said, but he and the other county election directors were present at a call last week discussing the change.
Beyond the SURE system, Anderson and the other officials also offered their thoughts on other aspects of election administration, many of which he shared with LebTown in December. They focused particularly on those brought about by Act 77 of 2019 — a recent law passed by the General Assembly which eliminated straight-ticket voting, moved registration and ballot return deadlines, and enabled Pennsylvanians to vote by mail for any reason.
Anderson weighed in on the topic of poll workers. When asked by Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga) what he’d like to see from poll worker training, Anderson said it would be helpful if more people were eligible to be poll workers. County and state government workers are currently barred from being poll workers, Anderson said, and lifting such a restriction could be helpful in counties like Lebanon or Dauphin, where large numbers of state employees live. Anderson also expressed hesitance toward mandatory training for poll workers, as it could serve to hinder the already-difficult recruitment process.
Additionally, Anderson voiced his frustration over third-parties sending mail-in ballot applications to Pennsylvanians that included his name in the return address spot and confused voters who had already applied for their ballots on their own. Such mailings should “absolutely be treated like campaign finance,” Anderson said, in that they should require the sender to be transparent about their identity.
“We got a ton of phone calls, because some of the databases that they did use were old,” Anderson said. “They were sending them to deceased people, they were sending it to people that had moved years ago, and of course those calls came to us and it was our fault. So, I would like it somehow to be marked who paid for it, who’s sending it, and be very, very clear, because everybody thought it was us.”
In the months following the election, county commissioners and election officials throughout the commonwealth have been asking to be included in any discussions about potential modifications to the election code.
“It is my goal for this committee to partner with our counties as much as possible, so we gather their firsthand experience at every step of our election process review,” Grove said on Thursday. “We must ensure any changes we make must be workable and effective for the end users: our counties, and our voters.”
In an interview with LebTown, Anderson said many of the worries about the SURE system that the representatives raised on Thursday are likely to disappear when the 2022 update happens, and there are “bigger fish to fry” when it comes to election reform.
Still, Anderson added that he’s glad that representatives asked logistical questions to gain a better understanding and awareness of what election directors are facing, since they are the people who make the laws that shape how county-level officials run elections. He said that he hopes to see bipartisan movement on what he sees as “common sense” measures that will improve elections for the workers running them and everyone else involved — unlike the political conflict that happened ahead of the November election when counties asked the legislature to consider and pass legislation allowing them to begin processing mail-in ballots ahead of, rather than on, Election Day.
“I’m happy we get invited to the table to communicate,” he said. “It’s better not just for directors, but for committees, candidates, and the general public.”
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