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Lawmakers spar during election system hearings

Republicans and Democrats squared off as the House State Government Committee held the first of 14 hearings on Pennsylvania’s election system.

Majority Republicans said the system needs to conform better with election law and be more consistent among counties. Democrats interpreted the effort as an attack on the legitimacy of a presidential election that has withstood a barrage of court challenges.

“We are not here to relitigate, but to review the election law in its entirety and how our elections are administered” — at every level, from base election law, updates passed in 2019, pre-election guidance, court decisions and the actions of 67 county election offices,” stated committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York. “The alternative, doing nothing, is revisiting the same issues every election, and that is unacceptable for our voters, election volunteers, county election employees and the Department of State.”

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, said, “The ongoing assault on facts and our democratic process that we have witnessed for months must end.”

The hearing focused on administration’s guidance, which — along with decisions by the Democratic-majority Supreme Court — helped accommodate mail-in voting.

Republican lawmakers see the adjustments by the executive and judicial branches as infringing on their legislative prerogative to establish an electoral framework.

Democrats see those adjustments as helping to ensure voters aren’t disenfranchised.

Counties differed in the way they handled the election, differences that should be eliminated for the sake of uniformity and equal protection, according to Republicans, who cited the “curing” or correction of mistakes in mail ballots, with only some voters being informed by election officials of mistakes.

That is a problem, because of the equal protection clause in the Constitution, Republicans said.

It was judged by the courts not to be a problem, provided the mistakes didn’t relate to voter eligibility, but were errors like forgetting to sign or date an envelope, Boockvar said.

Some of those errors were obvious as soon as election offices received ballots, while others didn’t become obvious until pre-canvas­sing started at 7 a.m. Election Day, Boockvar said.

Disallowing those corrections disenfranchises eligible voters, she said.

State Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, asked if state election law authorizes such “third-party notifications.”

Perhaps not explicitly, but it indicates that pre-canvasing sessions must be open and transparent, thus giving county officials discretion — “even the duty” — to let voters correct trivial mistakes, according to Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions Jonathan Marks.

But it’s problematic when some election offices enable voters to cure mistakes and others do not, said Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, citing the controversial western Pennsylvania victory of Jim Brewster over Nicole Ziccarelli, a victory that hinged on differing interpretations in two counties on whether to accept ballots that weren’t properly dated.

Inconsistency of interpretation regarding the surrender of mail ballots on Election Day led to a “chaotic” situation in two counties, Keefer said.

Some voters surrendered all the mail-in ballot materials they’d received, some did not, and some ended up voting in normal fashion and some by provisional ballot, Keefer said.

The solution would be more funding for more intensive poll worker training, Boockvar replied.

Initial guidance from the administration indicated that counties should count ballots that weren’t in secrecy envelopes, one Republican lawmaker pointed out.

A subsequent state Supreme Court ruling disallowed those “naked” ballots, he said.

Yes, but as soon as that ruling came down, the department immediately reversed its guidance to conform with the court, Boockvar said.

Grove asked if it wouldn’t be better to make guidance on all such matters mandatory, via the department’s regulatory authority, so counties could be consistent.

That can be difficult, because the State Department can issue regulations only based on “statutory authority,” Boockvar said.

Even then, getting regulations adopted is a two-year process.

She’d like to see the law changed so trivial mistakes by voters like forgetting the secrecy envelope and forgetting to sign or date their ballots are not punished.

A Republican lawmaker questioned Boockvar about segregating mail ballots that arrived after 8 p.m. Election Day, as required by the law, but still within a grace period that the state Supreme Court provided.

Contrary to the lawmaker’s suggestion, those ballots were kept segregated from the beginning of canvassing and were never entered into the final results, Boockvar said.

“They were processed but not counted,” she said.

Even if they had been counted, they wouldn’t have changed the outcomes in any races, she added.

Boockvar also said a court ruling made it clear there’s no basis in the election law for signature matching.

While Boockvar defended the integrity of the election, she suggested that “hands down” the most important change the General Assembly could make in election law — and one that every county election office would welcome — would be to allow for pre-canvassing earlier than 7 a.m. Election Day. Starting that late to prepare early voter ballots for counting guarantees delays in getting results.

Forty-six states already allow it, Boockvar said.

The administration also would also like to see rules for obtaining poll workers relaxed.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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