Election administration in Pennsylvania is reliable and trustworthy, and accusations by President Donald Trump’s 2020 legal team and others that it yields fraudulent outcomes are meritless, a panel of experts assured an audience Thursday evening at the Ware Center.
Nevertheless, there are some shortcomings in the state’s election regulations that should be remedied to ease administration, they said. Otherwise, the state is likely headed for headaches and more litigation in the upcoming presidential election this November.
Watch: Trust in Our Elections
County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, former federal judge John Jones, reporter Kate Huangpu and Michael McDonald, director of policy for the Pennsylvania Department of State, were the featured guests at “Trust in Our Elections: A Community Conversation,” co-hosted by the nonprofits Hourglass, Keep Our Republic and the Steinman Institution for Civic Engagement. Support from the Lancaster County Community Foundation allowed the event to be offered free of charge.
McDonald kicked things off by summarizing Act 77 and Act 88, the two most recent changes to Pennsylvania eletion law. Act 77 authorized no-excuse voting by mail and provided funding for counties to purchase voting machines that use paper ballots, ensuring a literal paper trail. Act 88 barred the use of private third-party funding for election administration; in exchange, it provided for substantial grants to counties to cover election-related expenses.
Since then, the state has made two further changes: It created a uniform statewide design for mail-in ballots, with elements intended to minimize the chance of voter error; and it provided for automatic voter registration at driver’s license centers. The latter change has increased voter registration at license centers by 45%, with registrations roughly balanced across Republicans, Democrats and Independents, rather than skewing toward one political party.
D’Agostino, who chairs Lancaster County’s Board of Elections, said the county runs elections in accord with the principles of integrity, veracity and consistency.
Likening election administration to a bank’s financial controls, he said there are numerous safeguards: Mail-in ballots are stored in a vault monitored by cameras; election machines and scanners are set up before the election and can’t be changed thereafter; no election equipment can connect to the Internet; when the county transmits election results to the Department of State, it does so via a secure dedicated T1 line.
So, what concerns are out there? A big one is pre-canvassing, said Huangpu, who writes for Spotlight PA. That’s the process of opening mail-in ballot envelopes and preparing ballots for scanning. Pennsylvania’s law bars counties from beginning pre-canvassing until Election Day, which means they are faced with a huge logistical task to complete in a few hours. People expect results that evening, so when the wait stretches out to several days and the numbers keep changing, it allows rumors to spread and distrust to grow.
Other issues: Pennsylvania law neither requires nor disallows ballot drop boxes or ballot curing (allowing voters to fix minor clerical mistakes on their mail-in ballots after they’re submitted) so some counties have them, others don’t. Filing for a recount only costs $50, so nuisance filings have become common. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is only one week before Election Day, which is extremely tight; election officials say it should be moved back to allow more time for mail-in ballots to be sent out and returned.
Partisan gridlock in Harrisburg is holding up action on those issues, Huangpu said. Both parties need to think they’re benefiting from a deal, and so far, no proposal has been jointly palatable.
Making some of those fixes could avoid litigation, “if we had the political will to do them,” Jones said. With the status quo, state and county election officials should be prepared for attorneys to litigate every angle they can think of: “Let your imagination run.”
Election cases are challenging because they have to be decided expeditiously, said Jones, who is now president of Dickinson College. He praised fellow federal Judge Matthew Brann for his handling of 2020’s Trump v. Boockvar, in which Rudy Giuliani, representing Trump, initially alleged widespread fraud.
Giuliani ultimately conceded in court that he had no evidence, but tried to argue that because some voters could not cure their ballots, all of Pennsylvania’s ballots should be nullified. Jones called it a “bizarre suit”: Brann was right to throw it out, he said, and Giuliani deserved his eventual disbarment.
Jones himself ruled in the runup to the 2020 election against a group seeking to disenfranchise thousands of inactive voters, claiming without evidence that they were deceased. That was the opinion Giuliani was brandishing in his infamous Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference, Jones said.
Trial judges, he said, apply the law impartially “without fear or favor” and the public should be “extremely confident” in their rulings.
Audience members were invited to submit questions in writing. One inquiry concerned the Postal Service delay that led to 268 properly mailed Lancaster County ballots arriving after Election Day and going uncounted. D’Agostino and McDonald both said they’re concerned and continuing to work with the Postal Service to find out what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.
Another question asked why Pennsylvania hasn’t enacted Voter ID or signature verification, despite polls showing large majorities in favor. That’s another issue where a sharp partisan divide discourages compromise, Huangpu said. D’Agostino and Jones both said they’re in favor: “Voter ID’s fine,” Jones said.
Supporters say voter ID is a common-sense election integrity measure. Opponents say in-person voter impersonation is extremely rare and deterred by existing safeguards, and that ID requirements disproportionately burden poor and minority voters, often by intent.
Former Gov. Tom Corbett was expected to take part in Thursday’s forum, but unexpected circumstances called him away. He is the chair of the Pennsylvania Council of Keep Our Republic; Jones is also a member of the group, a nonpartisan effort to mitigate election risks and promote trust in democratic institutions.
In a prerecorded video message, Corbett apologized for his absence. He warned to expect heated partisan debates and misinformation about election security in the runup to November.
“Trust in our elections is the backbone of our democracy,” he said. “… In the months ahead, we must all work together to keep our republic.”
(Editor’s Note: This article was updated Feb. 13 to add video of the event.)