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Wolf seeks to relax election rules

Governor says expected deluge of mail-in ballots requires adjustments

The General Assembly needs to liberalize several time restrictions in the election law to ensure that voters will be able to receive and return mail-in ballots that qualify to be counted in the general election, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday during a webcast news conference.

“No, no, no and no,” said state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, a member of the committee that handles election matters, when asked about the requests — citing concerns about ballot security.

The Democratic governor is doing nothing more than trying to ensure the defeat of President Donald Trump, according to state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg.

Wolf asked lawmakers to:

n Change the requirement that counties wait until 7 a.m. election day to prepare ballots for machine counting to one that lets them begin seven days in advance.

n Change the requirement that allows counties to wait until 14 days before the election to send out mail-in ballots to one that requires them to be sent 28 days before the election.

n Change the requirement that mail-in ballots be received by 8 p.m. election day to one that requires ballots to be postmarked by election day and received no later than the following Friday.

n Relax the requirement that counties can’t fill vacant poll worker positions until five days before the election.

“We need changes and we need them now,” Wolf said, reflecting Democratic concerns about an expected deluge of mail-in votes due to the coronavirus, coupled with recent delays in mail service that Democrats have attributed to a Republican wish to reduce turnout among people seen as likely Democratic voters. “(This) may be the most important election in our lifetimes,” Wolf said.

The bipartisan effort last year that now allows no-excuse mail-in voting was a “huge” reform that should refute charges that Republicans want to suppress the vote, said Schmitt, a member of the State Government Committee.

Conversely, there are real concerns about the potential for voter fraud — even if, as Democrats point out, there haven’t been many instances of it historically, according to Schmitt.

“I think it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially in this election,” Schmitt said.

The lack of knowledge about electoral fraud doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened — as it might have, if the perpetrators were good at hiding it, he said.

The bi-partisan reforms made it more convenient for people, including those who are older or disabled or working or traveling on election day — to vote, but that convenience needs to be balanced with security, Schmitt said.

Acceding to Wolf’s requests could send the state “down a slippery slope,” he said.

Republicans have offered to allow for moving up the permissible start of pre-canvassing mail-in ballots to three days before the election, but seven days is too long, Schmitt said.

Moreover, Wolf wants election workers not only to be able to open the outer envelopes and to verify signatures, but to open the inner, security envelopes and unfold the actual ballots to get them ready for machine-counting — and that’s “dangerous,” Schmitt said.

It could lead to stacks of open ballots sitting around election offices and could result in leaks about which candidates are leading, which could discourage voters for other candidates — or the opposite: efforts to mobilize voters to reverse the trend, Schmitt said.

He doesn’t think that would happen in Blair County, but it might in some larger counties, “where there have been shenanigans in the past,” he said.

The rules are in place for opened ballots to be kept secure, said Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

Ballot drop-off boxes are an alternative to the Postal Service in some counties, including Montgomery, said a Montgomery County commissioner who participated in the news conference, and who explained that the boxes will be locked and constantly monitored, and that there are chain-of-custody rules in place for emptying them.

But that brings up concerns with vote “harvesting,” Schmitt said.

Pennsylvania requires that all voters deliver their own mail-in votes to a mailbox, a drop box or the election office, unless one is disabled or there is an emergency and the voter appoints an “agent,” Boockvar said.

But even with that rule in place, harvesters can potentially intercept blank ballots and fill them out or persuade qualified voters who might not be familiar with the process to vote as they don’t intend, say at a nursing home, Schmitt said.

There are protections in place that make mail-in voting altogether safe, Boockvar said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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