This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
As the 2024 presidential election approaches, the people who run voting in Pennsylvania say the commonwealth must prepare to be at the center of national scrutiny.
These officials, who administer elections on the county level, argue the state should update its century-old Election Code, make long-sought adjustments to mail voting processes, and strengthen the system against bogus fraud claims.
Former President Donald Trump propagated baseless theories about widespread election fraud in Pennsylvania and other key swing states after his 2020 loss, efforts that resulted in a large number of lawsuits in the commonwealth and subjected election workers to intense scrutiny and harassment.
In conversations with Spotlight PA, four election directors said there are a few concrete changes that would shore up Pennsylvania’s system against frivolous fraud allegations as the 2024 election — which could again feature Trump as a candidate — approaches.
Most of them are measures that election officials have pushed for consistently since 2020, but which polarized state lawmakers have not delivered. They include clarifying the state’s mail voting rules, allowing poll workers to count ballots before Election Day, and raising the bar for challenging results.
Many of the policy changes that election directors want center around giving poll workers more time to do their jobs. Namely, they say the deadline for requesting a mail ballot should be earlier and that poll workers should be allowed to start counting mail ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day, a process commonly known as pre-canvassing.
Currently, Pennsylvania voters can request a mail ballot up to a week before Election Day, which officials said leaves too little time to get ballots back to voters in time.
“Seven days is not very much time to receive an application, process the application, print and mail the mail ballots, for the voter to receive that ballot, to vote, and return it,” said Seth Bluestein, a Philadelphia commissioner who is one of three people charged with overseeing the city’s elections.
Election workers also don’t have much time to open and process mail ballots at the moment.
Since 2020, the first major election in which Pennsylvania used no-excuse mail voting, election workers have said the current rules make it very difficult to quickly release unofficial results. Pennsylvania’s slow pace in releasing vote counts during that election was a major factor in Trump’s ability to foment conspiracy theories about fraud.
Since then, pre-canvassing has been used as a bargaining chip during election law debates in the state Capitol. A 2021 omnibus bill passed by the Republican-led state legislature offered former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf pre-canvassing in return for expanded voter ID requirements — a GOP priority. Wolf vetoed the bill because of that provision.
For election directors, pre-canvassing is more practical than political.
“We’re already working 14- to 16-hour days,” said Tonia Fernandez, who has served for four years as Erie County’s election director. “We’re constantly putting out fires, dealing with issues, and overseeing the process of canvassing.”
Fernadez says pre-canvassing would spread out the work that election workers have to do and create a more manageable schedule.
Ballot counting has gotten easier since 2020, partly because county workers now have more experience under their belts and because the state has allocated money for hiring more poll workers and purchasing equipment.
There is a catch: Counties that accept grant money from the state for elections must process and count their mail ballots without stopping until finished.
Erie County received over $900,000 in state funding from Act 88, and Fernandez said she’s not sure how the counting provision will affect her process in the upcoming presidential election. She already oversaw a midterm that featured nonstop counting, but 2024 will be even bigger.
“Before the election integrity grants were offered we would spend two or three days pre-canvassing and canvassing,” Fernandez said, noting that this approach gave “everyone the chance to sleep.”