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Officials debate ballot prep

Early precanvassing could have prevented wait for election results

If election officials in Pennsylvania counties had enough time to precanvass ballots before Election Day, it would have precluded the agonizing shift in the presidential results over the next several days.

Those shifts contributed to the controversy that culminated in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, according to information presented by an official in a conservative county who testified Thursday in a House committee hearing that included state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.

Current election law requires precanvassing — opening mail ballots, and scanning them without tabulating results — to begin no earlier than 7 a.m. on Election Day, but if counties could have precanvassed earlier, mail-in results would have been ready immediately after the polls closed, as soon as election offices hit the tabulation key, said Sullivan County Elections Director Hope Verelst at the latest state government hearing on election reform.

“(It would) help so much with voter confidence,” Verelst said, in answer to a question from state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia. Early precanvassing would have put Joe Biden in the lead from the outset, because votes for him came in heavily by mail, and there would have been no fantasies like the mail truck that allegedly showed up outside her office in the middle of the night with Biden ballots, Verelst said.

“They (the ballots) were sitting in our elections office waiting to be scanned,” she said. “The results would have looked at the end right as (they) looked in the beginning.”

Allowing early precanvassing was discussed between the Republican-majority General Assembly and the Democratic administration before the election, but the sides didn’t reach a deal, reportedly because the administration didn’t like other proposals that the Republicans attached to the measure.

“I wish everybody would have had you in social studies class, explaining this,” Kenyatta said to Verelst.

His statements in the hearings have reflected the Democratic position that the Republican-led effort was initially designed to question the legitimacy of the November results and to make voting in the future more difficult — although Republicans see it as a way to enforce consistency and eliminate opportunities for cheating.

Verelst and Mercer County Elections Director Thad Hall would welcome consistency, based on their testimony.

“State-related guidance that goes back to the law, that’s what we need,” Verelst said, in answer to a question from Schmitt.

“It makes a big difference (when offices) are doing things uniformly,” Hall said.

Uniform guidance that is learned “hand-in-hand” from representatives of the Department of State is especially important for new election officials, who are numerous now, because of a large exodus of election workers due to COVID-19, Verelst said.

Verelst envisions state experts “going down with you every step” of the complicated processes involved, she said.

There also needs to be a basic cleanup of the election law, which includes many antiquated provisions dating back to horse-and-buggy days, Hall said.

It shouldn’t be hard to get a slate of reforms, even if Pennsylvania only chooses best practices from other states, said Hall, who served as an election official in Arizona.

“You don’t have to invent anything,” he said. “Pick the best of what people already do.”

One of the potential reforms the state is already pursuing through a pilot study is replacement of the current requirement for an audit of 2% of ballots cast with a “risk-limiting audit” program that would be more efficient.

With risk-limiting audits, the size of the ballot samples tested tend to be inversely proportional to the margin of victory, according to Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, who testified.

The 2020 presidential primaries, where the margins were huge, required only 400 ballots to establish election accuracy, Howard said.

The 2020 general election for president, by contrast, which was close, called for 45,000 ballots to be checked, she said.

“RLAs examine a random sample of paper ballots, comparing the votes on paper to the totals reported by the vote-counting machines to ensure that the winner actually won,” the news release stated. “These types of audits can confirm that voting systems tabulated the paper ballots accurately enough that a full hand count would produce the same outcome.”

By doing that, they can detect possible “interference,” according to the news release.

Risk-limiting audits are more efficient and more flexible, Howard said.

State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, questioned the potential for them to uncover flaws and weaknesses in underlying election processes.

The findings are limited to the accuracy of ballot counting, Howard conceded.

Mirror Staff Writer

William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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