Legislation talks on mail ballots, other election issues are stalled in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke votes at a satellite election office at Temple University on Sept. 29.
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke votes on Sept. 29. Pennsylvania is facing lawsuits, complaints and partisan finger-pointing over its election procedures.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

Closed-door talks over election security and mail ballots — legislation key to avoiding a dragged-out vote count — in the presidential battleground state of Pennsylvania appeared stuck Thursday between the Democratic governor and the Legislature’s House Republican majority.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said an offer extended in recent days to House Republican leaders has been effectively rejected, now less than three weeks before election day.

“At the time, that deal was not sufficient for House Republicans, and since then, the administration has not heard back,” spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in a statement.


House Republicans did not dispute that.

A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said Thursday that the caucus is still pushing for separate provisions in any election legislation; Wolf has threatened to veto the provisions, which include banning drop boxes. Senate Republican majority leaders have remained silent.

The 11th-hour fight is happening in the shadow of President Trump’s baseless claims at a recent rally near Harrisburg that the only way he can lose Pennsylvania to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is if Democrats cheat, a claim he also made in the 2016 election.

Wolf’s offer involved a matter of prime importance to county election officials: giving them at least a few days before Nov. 3 to process what could be 3 million or more mail-in ballots to get them ready to tabulate as soon as polls close.

The counting of mail ballots will be slow in Pennsylvania, a state that could decide the presidential race. Election experts are alarmed by the threat of civic unrest as Trump tries to undercut public faith in the result.

Such a provision would speed up the vote count, ensuring that the vast majority of ballots are tabulated within hours after polls close, and give it more public credibility, county officials say.

Doing nothing risks a dragged-out vote count, possibly leaving the election result in doubt for days after polls close, drawing lawsuits and claims of election fraud in the high-stakes presidential election.

The governor’s offer also added security requirements for the drop boxes that many counties — particularly heavily populated and Democratic-leaning counties — are using to help collect mail-in ballots from voters.

House Republican legislation passed last month included a three-day head start for counties on processing ballots. But it also carried measures that Wolf opposes and that align with litigation pressed by Trump‘s campaign in state and federal courts.

Those include lifting the county residency restriction on party or campaign representatives who observe inside polling places and effectively banning drop boxes. House Republicans also oppose a court-ordered three-day post-election window for counties to accept and count mailed-in ballots.

These states will probably decide if Joe Biden or President Trump wins the election. And their absentee ballot laws could determine when we find out.