Anyone who is of a certain age undoubtedly remembers election nights in years like 1984 or 1996, when the presidential race was called as most people were still washing dishes after dinner and anchors on the television networks had to plead with West Coast voters to go to the polls even if the marquee contest was already sewn up.
Those early calls seemed awfully distant in November, when Pennsylvania put Joe Biden over the finish line of 270 electoral votes on the Saturday after the election. The reason it took the world so painfully long to find out who won Pennsylvania and the presidency is that more than 2 million of the commonwealth’s residents voted by mail-in ballot rather than trooping out to the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A year unlike any other, logically, resulted in a post-election period unlike any other.
Given the unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots and the slender margin that divided Biden and Trump in Pennsylvania, the counting was bound to stretch past the night of the election. But the process was made even slower due to the fact that elections officials in the commonwealth’s 67 counties were not even able to start processing mail-in ballots until the morning of the election. Pleas to the Legislature that they be allowed to start processing the ballots earlier fell on deaf ears.
Next month, a primary is coming up. Voters will be able to decide on judicial and municipal candidates, as well as a statewide referendum and constitutional amendments. These are important races and questions, and voters should take the time to cast ballots. But let’s face it, turnout will almost certainly be low, as it tends to be for elections where a president, senator, governor or congressional representative is not on the ballot.
It will also be the third statewide election that has been administered in Pennsylvania since the start of the pandemic last year. Despite vaccines going into arms and hopes that the end of the long tunnel is in sight, many voters will be opting to use mail-in ballots rather than going to their polling places.
Though it will probably not take as long as it did after the November election, the process of counting mail-in ballots will undoubtedly drag on for a while after the polls close. The process can be made quicker, though. What would be the harm in elections officials simply extracting the ballots from the envelopes, flattening and scanning them in the days before they are officially allowed to start counting them?
State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat from the Bucks County area, introduced a measure this week that would allow county elections boards to begin pre-canvassing mail-in ballots up to 21 days before Election Day. Santarsiero said, “Allowing for a 21-day pre-canvass will ease the burden on our county election administrators, which is something other states with mail-in ballot programs have been doing successfully for many years.”
It would also give a much-needed break to county elections officials. Several of them have left their jobs in Pennsylvania in recent months, reportedly due to the stress. Ed Allison, the Lawrence County elections director, told the state Senate’s Election Integrity Commission in March, “The stress level in the profession is at a breaking point.” The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has recommended that counties have more time to process ballots, and the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot be pushed back one week. Sherene Hess, a commissioner in Indiana County, said making these two fixes “could resolve a significant portion of the challenges counties experienced in 2020.”
We’ll find out soon enough whether voters get back into the habit of going to polling places once the pandemic subsides, or if they decide they like the convenience of mail-in ballots. In the meantime, the processing of mail-in ballots should be made easier for the people charged with counting them.