Pennsylvania expands election funds and audits

As Pennsylvania gears up for a November election less than eight weeks away, county boards of elections are getting more funds and the Department of State will require more audits to ensure public confidence in results.

Changes that could speed up the voting process and counting of ballots, however, do not appear to be on the table for this year.

“The department is prepared for the November election and we are confident that our 67 counties are prepared as well,” acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman said during a House State Government Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Chapman highlighted changes since the passage of Act 88, which banned boards of elections from accepting nongovernment funds and expanded state funding. As The Center Square previously reported, $22 million from a nonprofit linked to Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg went to Pennsylvania counties during the 2020 elections.

To ensure counties could cover election-related costs without outside funding, Act 88 created Election Integrity Grant Funding that awarded $44.3 million to 63 of 67 counties earlier this month.

“The Election Integrity Grant Program Funding is a historic investment of state dollars and election administration and it should enable counties to obtain the staff and equipment they need to efficiently process and tabulate ballots,” Chapman said.

She also noted the state will receive $2.2 million from the federal government for election funding.

Bradford, Crawford, Montour and Susquehanna counties did not receive funding because they didn’t apply for funds. Officials were worried that they could not meet the standards of the program, Chapman noted.

For election results, however, the public may have to wait. Some time-saving strategies are not uniformly rolled out across the commonwealth, and others, such as pre-canvassing ballots, are not authorized by state law.

“Vote history from those poll books is recorded manually. Counties scan a barcode,” Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions Jonathan Marks said. “Until we have electronic poll books in all of the counties or a majority of the counties, vote history is still going to be something that’s going to take some time after Election Day.”

Pre-canvassing ballots, which is when absentee or mail-in ballots are removed from their envelopes and counting the votes on the ballot, could have significant time savings.

“We’re right now sitting on about 20% of mail ballots for expected turnout for this election already” in Dauphin County, said Gerald Feaser Jr., director of the county's Bureau of Registration & Elections.

The growth of mail-in ballots means state law can slow or speed up the counting process.

“The need for earlier pre-canvassing – and even if we define pre-canvassing as just allowing us to open the outer envelope, you will literally cut in half the amount of time counties need on election morning beginning at 7 a.m. to begin the process of getting the ballots out of the inner envelopes,” Feaser said.

State laws vary, but 10 states allow the counting of votes before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Once those votes are counted, the commonwealth will carry out risk-limiting audits, a type of post-election audit to ensure voter equipment and vote procedures worked properly before election results are certified.

“The November election will be the first time the department will be directing all counties to complete a precertification risk-limiting audit,” Chapman said. “Implementing best practice changes, such as RLAs, to our election process and procedures, is one way the department works to combat the misinformation and disinformation Pennsylvania voters can encounter about election administration in the commonwealth.”

The hearing had a less-combative tone than some previous discussions about Pennsylvania's voting laws.

“When good work is done, I like to applaud,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, chairman of the State Government Committee, complimenting the Department on its redistricting work and campaign finance online system.

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