by Christen Smith
One week after Election Day, local officials in Pennsylvania continue canvassing ballots as lawmakers statewide express frustration and disappointment over the way the process unfolded.
As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, roughly 53,000 mail-in ballots, out of more than 2.5 million, remain uncounted. It’s unclear how many ballots arrived after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 – a batch that Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told counties to segregate from the rest. It appears another 4.2 million votes were cast on Election Day itself, of which the majority have been counted.
As it stands, former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump by fewer than 45,000 votes. While The Associated Press called the state and its 20 electoral votes for Biden over the weekend, Trump’s reelection campaign has alleged voter fraud and promised legal challenges that will delay the certified results indefinitely.
In the meantime, GOP lawmakers in the state Legislature said the confusion over the mail-in ballot process fell far short of the intent of Act 77, an election reform law that passed both chambers with overwhelming support last year. That law provided for no-excuse mail-in voting, a privilege once only afforded to military, overseas and out of state voters.
Rep. Tara Toohill, R-Luzerne, said the mail-in “mayhem” meant the $70 million the state spent investing in newer voting machines “to create the safest election possible” feels all for naught.
“But in reality, in-person voting became the most understaffed and obstructed system imaginable,” she said.
Toohill, whose district covers a swath of the electorate that flipped from blue to red in 2016, said many of the poll workers lacked appropriate training to handle the labor-intensive mail-in ballots. Further confusion over what to do when a voter preferred to cast their ballot in-person instead left many of her constituents unsure if their vote was counted at all.
“Many [staff] had been hired just the day before,” she said. “County employees were redeployed to physically move, sort and prep for pre-canvassing. The complete focus on mail-on ballots left the in-person voting system as we know it to be forever changed.”
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster called for an audit of the results last week in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of State – a move that garnered support from rank and file lawmakers in the caucus.
“The uncertainty surrounding these interventions has cast an unnecessary cloud on the election process,” Cutler said. “That invites our people to question the results, regardless of which candidate or party may prevail.”
One week before the election, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that postmarked absentee ballots received through 5 p.m. Friday could be counted as valid – handing a win to Wolf’s administration, who sought the extended deadline in the face of record turnout and post office backlogs.
But Republicans appealed the decision, citing security concerns. The ongoing legal battle means that those ballots must remain segregated from those received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
On Friday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito affirmed that the state set aside and count separately any ballots that arrived after Nov. 3. The department said they’ve complied with the ruling and always intended to segregate the late-arriving ballots from those received on time.
But Cutler and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, argue that Boockvar’s directive “to canvass all ballots as soon as possible” – given just hours before the polls opened – created confusion, as “it’s not possible to canvass every vote and segregate others at the same time,” they said. Some counties also followed state guidance to alert residents with defective or invalid ballots to come remedy the situation, despite no legal process outline in Act 77 for doing so.
All of this, Corman said, undermined the state’s election process and leaves a cloud of uncertainty over Pennsylvania’s results – the same results that handed Biden his apparent victory over Trump.
But it’s not about politics, the leaders insist. It’s about upholding the integrity of Act 77. That’s why Corman called for Boockvar’s resignation after the polls closed on Nov. 3, because the winner doesn’t matter, he said.
“The constantly changing guidance has resulted in inconsistent handling of ballots across the counties,” he said. “Her actions are nothing but a partisan effort to cause chaos and mistrust. The rebuke by the Supreme Court underscores how Secretary Boockvar’s action have weakened the confidence in our voting system and Pennsylvania’s election results.”
Boockvar said the posturing from Republican leaders is unfounded.
“They don’t like the late counting of ballots because they don’t like anything that allows more voters to be enfranchised, so let’s be clear about that,” she said.
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Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.