House passes bill to reverse changes blamed for mail delays

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mail box in Omaha, Neb. U.S. Postal Service warnings that it can’t guarantee ballots sent by mail will arrive on time have put a spotlight on the narrow timeframes most states allow to request and return those ballots.

HARRISBURG — Nearly 20,000 mail-in ballots submitted in the June primary were tossed because they arrived too late, the state Department of State said in response to a records request by CNHI Pennsylvania Newspapers.

That’s close to half the number of votes by which  President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Trump won the state's 20 electoral college votes with a popular vote margin of 44,292.

Election officials say they expect there to be a dramatic increase in the number of mailed ballots in November compared to June.

The issue of late-arriving ballots and what to do about them has emerged as one of the most controversial sticking points between Democrats and Republicans as state officials scramble to enact reforms to make the November election run more smoothly.

Pennsylvania voters cast about 1.5 million votes by mail-in ballot or absentee ballot in the June primary, the first time voters in this state have had the option to vote-by-mail without providing an excuse explaining why they couldn’t go to the polls.

Of those, 18,166 were rejected by election officials for arriving too late. For much of the state, that meant the ballots arrived after polls closed on Election Day. In a handful of counties where the state had put an extension in place, thousands still arrived late, despite the extension, state data shows.

Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania, said that regardless of the political ramifications of the decision about whether or not to accept late-arriving ballots, her organization believes that the main point should be that as many votes should be counted as possible.

“We want every vote to count even if it arrives after the deadline,” she said.

Due to concerns about the pandemic and its impact on voting, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order requiring Philadelphia and five other counties -- Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, and Montgomery -- to count ballots that arrived after the June 2 primary day, but before June 9.

Even with that extended deadline, 8,577 ballots mailed in those counties arrived too late to be included in the voting tally, according to records provided by the Department of State.

Wolf has called on the General Assembly to pass legislation that would require counties to count late-arriving ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly have, thus far, refused to support the move to accept late-arriving ballots.

Instead, they’ve proposed moving the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot to 15 days prior to the election so there is less opportunity for procrastinating voters to try to vote by mail at the last minute. Current law gives voters until seven days before the election to apply for a mail-in ballot.

The U.S. Postal Service in late May warned Pennsylvania and most other states that based on the deadline for when voters can apply for mail-in ballots it is likely that ballots mailed at the last-minute wouldn’t arrive on time.

A election reform bill that has already passed the state House is now awaiting a vote in the state Senate. But Wolf has indicated he will veto the legislation if passed in its current form -- without allowing for counting late-arriving ballots or the use of drop boxes for depositing mail-in ballots without using the postal service.

There is little optimism that Republicans and the governor will reach a compromise on an election bill that both sides agree upon, said state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, the chairman of the House state government committee.

“I don’t see see any interest in tweaking the bill to make it palatable to the governor,” Everett said. “We’re deadlocked.”

Everett said that Republicans have no interest in moving to accept late-arriving ballots and think instead that the focus should be on encouraging voters to mail their ballots as soon as possible so they arrive on time.

If Wolf and lawmakers at odds over whether to accept late-arriving ballots, the issue could very well be decided in the courts, he said.

Prompted by the warning from the postal service that mail delivery might not be able to get ballots to the election office on time, the Wolf Administration has asked the state Supreme Court to order that counties count late-arriving ballots.

Common Cause and other advocacy groups have also intervened in a lawsuit brought by a group of Democrats asking the Supreme Court to require that drop boxes be allowed and late-arriving ballots be counted.

On another front, the campaign of President Donald Trump and a group of Republican officials sued in federal court seeking to bar many of the reforms sought by the Democrats. The federal judge issued a stay until Oct. 5 to see what the state courts decide in those cases.

On one point, Almeida agreed with Everett though -- that voters can help themselves by mailing their ballots as they receive them instead of waiting and increasing the chances that the ballots don’t arrive on time, she said.

CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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