HARRISBURG – The state House has approved legislation by a wide margin that would require the Department of State to produce a report documenting any problems associated with the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots in the June primary.

Under House Bill 2502, which passed by a vote of 201-1, the Department of State would have 60 days to issue a report on the number of absentee and mail-in ballots, as well as incidents in which ballots were sent to the wrong address or there were allegations that someone tried to use a mail-in ballot to vote for someone else. State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, was the only negative vote. The legislation's prospects in the state Senate aren't clear. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, didn't immediately respond on Wednesday to a question about whether the Senate plans to act on the bill.

Much of the data that would be mandated in this new report is already included in an annual report completed by the Department of State. The House proposal would require the state to generate that information more quickly, so that it's available ahead of the presidential election.

“In 2019, we passed historic and sweeping changes to Pennsylvania’s election laws,” said state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Washington. “As we approach the June 2 primary, I offered this legislation to be able to gather data quickly after the election, so we are able to ensure a smooth implementation of our Commonwealth’s new voting reform law, Act 77 of 2019.”

The move comes as Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly urged voters to plan to vote by mail in order to limit the size of crowds at the polls, due to concerns about fueling a resurgence of the state’s coronavirus outbreak.

More than 1.5 million voters have already applied for mail-in ballot or absentee ballot applications. The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is Tuesday.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed concern about the move by states across the country to make mail-in voting more widely available, saying it creates a potential for fraud.

Wolf on Wednesday said he’s aware that the president has raised concerns about mailed ballots, but he added that Trump votes by mail. The benefits of improved convenience and safety for voters outweighs any perceived increased chance of fraud, the governor said.

“The opportunity for fraud is limited,” he said.

Wolf said that he’s heard reports that some people have received more than one ballot in the mail but that the voting machines won’t accept more than one ballot from each voter.

“Counties have done everything they can to ensure the validity of the vote,” he said. “This should be a good, easy and safe way to cast a ballot.”

Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Department of State, said that the mail-in ballots will be handled the same way election workers have been handling absentee ballots for decades.

"The eligibility of each voter who applies is verified upon application, and the voter’s eligibility is verified again upon receipt of the voted ballot, through use of a unique scannable code on the return envelope and ballot," she said.

Ed Allison, election director in Lawrence County, said that the state’s experiences in running the primary are unlikely to provide any meaningful insight into how the general election will go.

Voter turnout in the general election will be much higher than it will be in June, he said.

“You have to compare apples to apples,” he said.

With the primary getting moved to June, there will not be much time to make changes if there are concerns with how the primary goes, he said.

What is becoming clear is that the mail-in voting is going to make it exceedingly difficult to get election results done on Election Night, he said.

Election workers are allowed to organize mailed ballots but they aren’t allowed to count them until after the polls close. In Mercer County, that means election workers will have to begin scanning about 8,000 mailed ballots when the polls close, a process that Allison estimates will take four or five hours.

And as the number of mail ballots increase, it will become increasingly likely that those ballots will swing election results, he said.

“It will have an impact on elections,” he said.

Mihalek said her legislation is intended to make sure that attempted fraud doesn’t go unnoticed.

“A free and fair election is a basic tenet of this nation,” she said. “We must ensure the integrity of our elections here in Pennsylvania and I thank my colleagues for voting in favor of this legislation.”

In addition to documenting allegations of fraud, the report would also require the state to generate data on a variety of county-level measures: such as the number of applications for an absentee ballot that were approved and received, the number of applications for a mail-in ballot that were approved and received, the number of mail-in and absentee ballots that were voted by electors, the number of qualified electors voting by a provisional ballot and more.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

Recommended for you