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Wolf: GOP ‘changed minds’ on deal

The Wolf administration came close to a deal last week with Republican lawmakers that would have allowed early precanvassing of ballots, but it dissolved when the Republicans changed their minds, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday in a webcast news conference.

Wolf agreed to relaxing the requirement that poll watchers live in the counties where they’re watching, so watchers could come from contiguous counties, but House leaders later said “they don’t want to do that anymore,” Wolf said.

“It’s unfortunate,” state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, said in a phone interview. “I was hopeful we were going to be able to strike a deal to give the counties some precanvassing time.”

Precanvassing would have made it easier for county election offices, so they wouldn’t be so swamped on Election Day and afterward with prepping and counting mail-in ballots, said state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair. But because Election Day is so close, and counties are worried the late change would be disruptive, “it’s probably just as well” it didn’t happen, Ward said.

The failure to hash out a deal for the early removal of ballots from envelopes so counting goes faster on Election Day will mean a delay in getting results, according to Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

The failure won’t lead to shortcuts, however, she indicated.

“The first priority is to count every ballot accurately,” Boockvar said. The next is to count them quickly, she said.

Many counties, including larger ones, are planning to count around-the-clock until they’re finished, she said.

The “overwhelming” majority of ballots will be counted within a couple days, she predicted.

No agreement

While the two sides failed to reach an agreement to add days at the front end of the election, the Republicans are seeking again to quash a Democratic victory in the state Supreme Court that added three days to the back end. Originally, mailed ballots needed to arrive by 8 p.m. Election Day. Now, they can reach election offices as late as Nov. 6, provided they’re postmarked by Election Day.

The Republicans recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the state Supreme Court order, but the effort failed, as the court voted 4-4.

Now, the Republicans are appealing “on the merits” of the underlying arguments — and they have a potential winning vote with the recently appointed conservative, Amy Coney Barrett.

The Republicans are asking for “expedited consideration,” because the election is so close — although asking for that kind of change so near the finish can raise fairness questions, Schmitt agreed.

“(The Republicans) are asking the Supreme Court to move the goalposts pretty late in the game,” he said.

There are people who may be voting by mail at this time in expectation of having those extra three days for their ballots to arrive, he said.

Voters can eliminate the chance that the grace period being struck down will invalidate their ballots by delivering those ballots to election offices or drop boxes in person or by voting — even by provisional ballot — on Election Day, Boockvar indicated. “Then you don’t need to worry,” she said.

The administration’s lawyers are working on a response to the Republican appeal, Boockvar said.

The administration expects a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court by Thursday or Friday, Wolf said.

The proposed elimination of the three-day grace period and other changes that have been made or proposed — some now tied up in a storm of lawsuits by both parties in federal and state courts — are making it difficult for county election offices, Schmitt said.

“Their heads are going to explode,” Schmitt said. “(But) nobody wants to give up.”

The three-day grace period is a bad idea, according to Ward.

“Election Day is Election Day,” she said. “There needs to be a clear winner.”

There is the potential for “chaos,” given all the issues, and there seem to be some people on both sides who would welcome that, Schmitt said.

“They’d rather see chaos than lose an election,” he said. “(Maybe) they can steal an election they can’t otherwise win.”

He’s confident that both parties in Pennsylvania, however, are acting in good faith — “passionate” about their ideas of what’s fair, but not seeking chaos, he said.

The ones seeking chaos are elsewhere, including “foreign actors,” he said, citing Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Given Pennsylvania’s likely “keystone” role as a large swing state, it’s not surprising that those who’d like to influence the result would home in here, he said.

It’s unsettling, according to Schmitt.

“Anything that interferes with fair and free elections is dangerous to our republic,” he said, citing the example of ancient Rome, whose fall was hastened by political violence, bribery and tampering. “Voting is sacrosanct,” he said.

He’s optimistic, though.

“I don’t see roving gangs trying to intimidate voters,” he said. “I think if there’s any hint of that, it will be quickly put down.”

Ward sees the potential for “irregularities” in the Philadelphia area.

There are “certain polling places where there has not been one Republican vote cast, or the tallies don’t match up,” she said, adding that those were not simply rumors.

There have been daily discussions about election security involving the Department of State, the governor’s office, the state police, the Inspector General’s office, the National Guard, the federal Department of Homeland Security and county election offices and local law enforcement, Boockvar said.

The hope is to prevent problems and if they happen, to defuse them, she said.

Poll watchers

Allowing poll watchers to operate in neighboring counties would have been a “real concession” for Democrats, Wolf said, referring to the proposed deal for early precanvassing.

With urgings from President Donald Trump, poll watchers have become a major topic, but historically, they’ve been inconspicuous at polling places, such that many voters are unaware of them, Boockvar said.

“It’s worked well in Pennsylvania — nobody has abused it,” Boockvar said.

Typically, their role is to compile names of those in their party who’ve voted, so calls can be made to those who haven’t as Election Day draws to a close, she indicated.

The ideal will be for them to remain in the background in the upcoming election, Boockvar said.

People shouldn’t pay any attention to them, she suggested.

Democratic poll watchers likely will focus on polling places in Republican strongholds and vice versa, although both may watch in “purple” areas, she said.

They are not permitted to intimidate or interfere with voters and they shouldn’t ask voters for documents, she said.

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