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Election reforms teed up with consensus uncertain

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(The Center Square) – For the fourth year in a row, legislators think Pennsylvania’s election law needs more updates.

And for the fourth year in a row, there’s little consensus about what those reforms should look like.

It’s typically a question of convenience versus security, though both camps would argue it’s not that simple.

House Democrats want same-day registration and early in-person voting for two weeks leading up to Election Day. They say these changes follow the lead of two dozen states and Washington, D.C., that recognize how an expanded voting period brings more seniors, disabled residents and shift workers to the polls.

House Republicans believe such changes open the door to fraud and errors that engender more distrust among residents already wary of the state’s swift transition to mail-in voting. Even the machines at polling sites, they say, lack enough protection against hacking and technological malfunctions.

Democrats attack these views as sowing doubt about voting integrity and fueling conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, reiterated as much during a news conference Tuesday announcing the party’s reform priorities.

“Voting is at the core of our national identity and among our most valued rights as Americans,” she said. “Rather than spur distrust in our system and attack our dedicated election workers, we should look for ways to make the system accessible to more Pennsylvanians so their voices can be heard.”

Republicans believe the distrust comes from the unintended consequences of a sweeping mail-in voting law that rolled just months before the pandemic hit. Legislation to roll back some of those, including banning drop boxes to prevent ballot stuffing, passed through the Senate State Government on Tuesday.

“This bill is not intended to undermine convenience, but to uphold electoral integrity, which the people of this commonwealth have been scrambling for and demanding,” said Sen. Cris Dush, R-Brookville. “It’s also something upon which our republic relies. An election is only as secure as its weakest link.”

He added that integrity cannot be sacrificed for convenience, no matter how important the latter may be to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

During a March 6 Senate budget hearing, Commonwealth Secretary Al Schmidt said elections “have never been more secure.”

Divisions over universal voter ID still exist along party lines, as do precanvassing rules. For the latter, Schmidt said counting the ballots goes “pretty quickly,” but processing them takes much longer. Poll workers would need at least three days, he said.

Counties, meanwhile, struggle with recruiting poll workers, Schmidt said. About 45,000 residents staff 9,000 voting locations across the state.

High turnover rates among county election administrators pave the way for more errors. In December, Schmidt said the department redesigned ballot envelopes to make them easier for voters to fill out correctly, as well as put together a training team for new administrators.

Giving counties checklists and instructions so each one knows what needs to be done, Schmidt said, matters.

“Those sorts of mistakes, human errors easily made by non-experienced election administrators, is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing commonwealthwide,” he said.