Over 900,000 mail-in and absentee ballots were requested by voters for the Pennsylvania primaries, but none of those ballots can even begin to be processed until Election Day due to a lack of pre-canvassing.
Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that prohibits pre-canvassing, when election officials and workers open and process mail ballots before Election Day. Adversely, 37 states currently allow pre-canvassing of their mail ballots. Because of this, counting ballots during Pennsylvania elections often takes multiple days, compared to states like Florida that report their results on Election Night.
To add to the expected chaos, each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties can vary in how they choose to begin their ballot counting procedures. About 15 counties plan to start counting their ballots at around 7 A.M. on Election Day, but Mercer County and Berks County will begin counting their mail ballots the day after Election Day, at the same time they count their military and absentee ballots. Lackawanna County, which requested over 15,000 mail-in ballots, will start opening the returned ballots by 7:30 A.M. and plans to be finished processing them by 6 P.M.
Counties with smaller loads like in Jefferson County (1,671 mail-in ballots requested) plan to finish earlier. Jefferson county officials say they will be done by noon. Meanwhile, places like Philadelphia (104,465 mail-in ballots requested) recruit temporary workers to assist regular city staff in processing ballots. As City Commissioner Seth Bluestein so succinctly puts it, “The more people you have, the faster you can count.”
At a recent press conference, Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman was quoted saying, “One thing that all county election officials in Pennsylvania agree with is the need for pre-canvassing when it comes to vote by mail ballots.”
During the November 2020 election, 2.6 million voters requested to mail-in their ballots, and Philadelphia alone took five days to complete the counting process, even with the additional workforce. During this delay, Pennsylvania became a hotbed of right-wing election fraud claims and a battleground for the Trump campaign’s efforts to undermine the public’s trust in the nation’s democratic institutions. Election officials posit that pre-canvassing could prevent another wave of “Stop the Steal” protestors from storming election offices and counting centers during Election Day.
Additionally, pre-canvassing can prevent “naked” ballots from being discarded entirely. Normally, mail-in ballots are enclosed in an inner secrecy envelope and an outer mailing envelope. Ballots that do not meet this requirement are considered “naked,” and what happens to them next depends on when they are discovered. If discovered before the counting begins, election workers can notify the voter by email and give them the option to apply for a new ballot. If discovered during the counting, however, the ballot is discarded, and the voter is notified.
In 2021, Republican chair of the State Government Committee Seth Grove introduced a bill that would allow five days of pre-canvassing for election officials, but because the bill also included irrelevant provisions, namely a new voter ID law, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed it.
A new bill has yet to be proposed to give officials more time to count ballots, despite counties across Pennsylvania advocating for its necessity.