Lebanon County officials have agreed to accept over $466,000 in funding as part of a $45 million election grant program that was approved with the state budget in July.
The funding comes with a number of requirements that the county must follow, or else it could be required to refund its portion to the state if found to be non-compliant with program guidelines.
Lebanon County Voter Registration/Elections Bureau director Sean Drasher said the $466,606 nearly doubles his department’s annual budget.
“This is a big block of money that will have a big, massive impact on our budget,” said Drasher. “But we’re looking at where we can safely spend the money to satisfy the state’s requirements. We don’t want to be in the position of spending the money and then having to pay it back.”
The new law, which has met skepticism and criticism from other county officials across the commonwealth, gives Pennsylvania’s 67 counties the option to participate in the grant program. Payments to the 51 counties that ultimately decided to accept the funding were disbursed on Sept.1.
Drasher said county officials had until Aug. 15 to make their opt-in/out decision. After discussing the grant with county commissioners, Lebanon County officials agreed to proceed, and county commissioners unanimously and retroactively approved the grant funding request at its Aug. 19 meeting.
“There are demands that are placed on us within the grant, but there was discussion that somewhere down the road those same demands could be mandatory without any grant funding support being available to us,” said Drasher, explaining the reason Lebanon County officials decided to join the program. “So the feeling was that it is better to accept the grant while you can because there is a possibility that this funding, which is renewed annually, could disappear in the future.”
One provision requires election officials to print ballots for every registered voter — regardless of how many voters are expected to turn out for a given election.
“On a great year, we might have 80 percent turnout but usually we get about 30 percent in Lebanon County, which is in line with national averages,” noted Drasher. “Some precincts have 80 percent turnout but there are those that only have a dozen people come out to vote. Why would I buy 800 ballots when I know I only have 100 people who are going to vote? We’re really going to overshoot those (actual voter) numbers massively.”
Drasher noted the 100 percent print requirement is to ensure that no precincts run out of ballots on Election Day. Of the approximate 140,400 county residents counted during the 2020 census, about 95,000 are registered to vote.
“Some (other) places have come up short on Election Day with the number of ballots they have, which is always unacceptable,” said Drasher. “I am sure what the top down would say is that you don’t have to worry about the waste because we’re giving you the money to cover your costs.”
Drasher said election directors have historically calculated the number of ballots they believe are needed based on voting trends during an election cycle. The county’s election bureau has traditionally spent between $50,000 and $60,000 to print ballots for the primary election in May and the general election in November, added Drasher. (Those figures do not include mail-in ballots, which require two mailing envelopes, mail-in instructions and the ballot.)
One of the requirements causing heartburn for some county election officials in media reports is the provision that requires them to start “pre-canvassing at 7 a.m. on election day and shall continue without interruption until each mail-in ballot and absentee ballot … is pre-canvassed.”
That requirement, however, should not be an issue in Lebanon County, according to Drasher.
“The great news is that our very efficient, big team of amazing workers who come in to canvas with us that day, know what they are doing, are on task, and we have some equipment that opens the envelopes and makes that work go really fast,” said Drasher. “In the spring (election), we were done (counting votes) by lunch.”
Many larger counties — and even those with very little staff and few temporary workers to share the workload — are not happy about this particular rule.
“Very big counties can’t say the same thing. They have a lot more to manage, a lot more moving parts and a lot more ballots to count. They’re going to get hit in a way that we can’t appreciate in Lebanon County,” added Drasher.
As far as spending the funding in Lebanon County, Drasher has a “wish list” of equipment that he would like to purchase for his department — assuming those purchases are permissible expenses as defined under the state’s list of “eligible uses.”
One of the nine eligible uses clauses allow for the “secure preparation, transportation, storage and management of voter apparatuses, tabulation equipment and required polling place materials.”
Whether or not that clause is an appropriate use of the grant funding to purchase equipment is being reviewed by the county solicitor, according to Drasher. Some of the other eligible uses cover training costs for district election officials, payment of staff and temporary workers, post-election procedures and list maintenance activities, among others.
The possibility of purchasing equipment that lessens the likelihood of human error and the time needed to process mail-in and absentee ballots couldn’t have come at a better time for the county’s election bureau, according to Drasher.
“This grant comes at a weirdly good time for us,” he said. “Since the city moved out, there is available space in the county building. Prior to their move, we could not have bought a machine even if we had wanted to.”
Prior to the passage of Act 77 and the advent of mail-in ballots, Lebanon County received about 200 absentee ballots a year. But that number is expected to balloon come 2024 during the next presidential election.
“Since the passage of the Act (77) things have changed considerably for us!” wrote Drasher in an email follow-up to LebTown. “In an off-year primary I expect about 10,000 mail-in requests. Obviously that can go up and down. But in a presidential (election) that number is expected to double. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit 20,000 or maybe even more by the time we get to the next presidential in 2024.”
Anticipating a huge increase in the number of mail-in and absentee ballots is a reason Drasher is happy to receive the election grant now.
“We are going to have to find a solution to handling this volume, even if it’s modest, here in Lebanon,” he wrote. “That’s why this grant money will be helpful. We could invest into some systems that would allow a single person to do the work of many. I’d like to get that in place in the next year so we are set up for the long haul.”
The timing of the grant along with the city’s move has created a dual number one wish for Drasher’s list.
“We’re looking to expand our footprint with the space that’s available in the building. We’re in a very small office space and we have taken up a lot of space all over this building, historically, on election day,” said Drasher. “So this wish is tied to moving, which is our top priority, so that we have enough floor space to get processing machines to get through the volume of work we have during an election cycle.”
Three of the four members of the state legislature voted to approve Senate Bill 982, which created the grant program. Sen. Chris Gebhard, and Reps. Russ Diamond and Sue Helm, whose district includes parts of Lebanon County, voted in favor, while Rep. Frank Ryan did not cast a vote.
Matt Urban, chief of staff for Gebhard, said the State Government Committee held two hearings in April to discuss why some counties received private funding to run their elections during the 2020 presidential election while others did not.
Although the state legislature did not provide funding to assist counties in the midst of a global pandemic, certain private entities did — including money from The Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is administered by Mark Zuckerburg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
“This bill was an effort to equalize and regulate the funding of elections and to eliminate outside private money from being accepted,” said Urban. “Using outside monies to run an election seemed wrong, in his (Gebhard’s) opinion. The problematic part was that some counties were not offered the same opportunities as others.”
When asked what proof exists that shows private funding may have influenced the election towards one political party over the other, none was given. Diamond said the money was used to encourage people to go to the polls.
“Look, let’s just boil it down plain and simple,” said Diamond. “The people behind the money wanted to figure out a way to get out the vote for Democrats, period. So the Democrat counties got way more per registered voter than the Republican counties — although some of the Republican counties did get some of that money.”
When it was noted that a Get Out The Vote movement doesn’t encourage people to vote for one party over the other, Diamond said the way the money was used aided Philadelphia voters, where there are more people who vote Democrat than Republican.
“The money was used to set up scads of drop boxes, to set up satellite voting offices, satellite election offices, where a voter can apply or register for a mail-in vote, or turn in their mail-in ballot vote right on the spot,” he said. “So it made it easier for those heavily Democrat areas to get voters in.”
Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary for Gov. Wolf, wrote in an email response why he signed the bill into law: “This legislation takes a step toward providing much-needed, sustained funding for county election operations, such as paying poll workers for their service and printing ballots.”
She also noted in her response that the state legislature did not provide any funding despite requests from county election officials to offset additional costs caused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a reminder, the 2020 election took place under the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic where unprecedented numbers of Pennsylvanians requested mail-in ballots, and those who chose to vote in person had to be able to do so safely. In advance of the election, counties across the state urgently asked the General Assembly to provide funding to make sure the election could be conducted efficiently and safely. Unfortunately the legislature did not respond to those requests. In this vacuum, funding was made available to all 67 counties for non-partisan purposes, including purchasing equipment to process mail-in ballots and protective equipment that helped keep poll workers and voters safe.”
Helm, whose district covers North Annville and East Hanover townships, said the goal of the legislative bill was to return integrity to the election process. When asked if the 2020 presidential election was rigged or if there was proof of voter irregularity in Philadelphia, Helm said she did not wish to dwell on the past and that there was no way of proving it.
“This bill was about ensuring that people feel that when they go into the voting booth that their vote counts,” added Helm.
A message from Ryan’s office indicated there was no support for House Bill 982 in the legislature. Follow-up requests with office staff for an interview to speak with Ryan about Senate Bill 982 were not returned.
The new law does hold private citizens accountable if they were to attempt to provide funding for an election. Act 88 contains the following fines and punishment for anyone convicted of violating the new law:
“Any person who violates section 107 shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree and shall, upon conviction thereof, be sentenced to pay a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars ($5,000), or to undergo an imprisonment of not more than two (2) years, or both, in the discretion of the court.”
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