As the results roll in from the 2020 primary season, reports of massive numbers of uncounted mail ballots and disenfranchised voters dominate the headlines, yet the push for expanding mail-in voting in November continues apace.
Pennsylvania is unfortunately no exception. In the state House, Representative Gainey of Allegheny County introduced House Bill 2591; if passed, this legislation would fundamentally reshape Pennsylvania’s election law. The legislation would eliminate ballot request forms and send every name on the voter rolls a blank ballot prior to every election. Although the bill was drafted against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, its changes to Pennsylvania law would be permanent.
While well-intentioned, my colleague would do well to consider this message: a few short months before a pivotal presidential election is not the time to try out all-mail elections. That is not a message from political partisans, but from Washington’s Secretary of State, an official who has long overseen elections in which every voter on the state’s rolls is mailed a blank ballot.
A few weeks ago, NBC Nightly News featured Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman explaining why an abrupt switch to all-mail elections would endanger the democratic process and put thousands of votes at risk. The fewer voters who cast ballots by mail in previous elections, the harder it would for a state to hold a secure election in which every voter is mailed a blank ballot. Pennsylvania’s proportion of mail voters in 2016 and 2018 was a measly 4%.
Even if we are to follow Washington’s example of all-mail elections, the timeline outlined in House Bill 2591 looks nothing like a success story from our colleagues on the west coast. Washington’s first elections in which blank ballots were sent to voters who had not requested them were low-turnout special elections, via a 1983 law. After several iterations that slowly increased capacity, all-mail elections were codified statewide – after 28 years of practice.
That’s 28 years of expanding and honing the mail-in system before it was standard practice. That slow, purposeful timeline gave the legislature, the executive branch, and the Post Office time to gather evidence, address issues, and increase capacity.
No one knows this better than Secretary Wyman. Throughout the 2020 primary season, she has consistently warned that creating a vote-by-mail system from scratch, while ensuring valid votes count and invalid ones do not, requires time and planning that states do not have before November.
Even if the Pennsylvania General Assembly were able to pass the bill this week, we would only have 75 days weeks to completely remake our system of elections. Seventy-five days, versus Washington’s 28 years. Would anyone want to take a gamble that we can get an entirely new election system right in 75 days?
Moreover, in the State Government Committee, we are still working to fix what we failed to consider the first time, when the dual system of mail-in ballots and absentee ballots was passed in the legislature. Front-line poll workers and county elections officials have recommended fixes, but between state and local election management, it is a huge challenge to efficiently handle the changes across all 67 counties in the state. To put it simply, we should not be looking to expand the mail-in franchise when there are still kinks from the recent change to the law.
Our June primary is all the evidence we need that increasing mail voting by way of House Bill 2591 would result in fewer election safeguards, longer lines, and more disenfranchised voters.
As the governor’s administration relentlessly pushed mail voting, local clerks, without state support, were forced to close polling places all over the state: in Philadelphia, 80% of the city’s 830+ voting locations shuttered their doors. Despite the closures, half of primary voters chose to vote in person, leading to hours-long waits. Voters who had requested ballots reported never receiving them, whether because of the Post Office or the Board of Elections. Other ballots arrived so late that Governor Wolf issued a last-minute executive order that extended their due date by a week in six Pennsylvania counties, leaving the rest out to dry. Still, Philadelphia had only counted 10% of the mailed ballots four days after the election.
Representative Gainey and I agree on this point: this massive surge in mail-in voting did not work in Pennsylvania’s primary. The question is, why does his legislation advocate for expanding a mechanism that failed so magnificently in June?
The evidence is in. Washington’s experience and our own shows that rushing to change a system – a system that has successfully given hundreds of millions of Americans the vote for two centuries – would result in chaos. Pennsylvania voters deserve better.
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