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Is PA’s Voting System Secure?

stickers with i voted inscription and flag of usa
Act 88, passed this summer, will change the way mail-in ballots are counted in Nov. We asked Chester, Delaware and Montgomery County officials to explain the process.

by Davis Giangiulio, Managing Editor

In November, Pennsylvania will elect a governor, senator and host of local officials. Suburban voters in Chester County, Delaware County and Montgomery County could decide elections between Josh Shapiro and Doug Mastriano, and Dr. Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman. No matter your political beliefs, one question from 2020 lingers: Is our voting system secure?

Pennsylvania's mail in ballots
Photo by Sora Shimazaki

The story of Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results starts in 2019 when PA Act 77 was passed with bipartisan support. Act 77 meant that anyone could request a mail-in ballot without having to give a reason. The act’s passage went into effect for the 2020 elections, when many people stayed away from polling places for fear of contracting COVID.

“Act 77 was the largest election reform that we’ve seen in Pennsylvania since the 1930s,” said Leigh Chapman, Pennsylvania’s acting Secretary of State. After Act 77 became law, Chapman said the state had to create a new mail-in voting application process available both on paper and electronically. That meant that, at the county level, officials had to create new safety nets.

mail in ballots in PA
Photo by Mikhail Nilov

So here’s how Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot system works. When people apply for mail-in ballots, their voter profiles are updated to make note of the request. If they return ballots, whether by mail or in-person via a camera-monitored drop-box, their profiles are updated to reflect that they voted. That way, they can’t go to polling places and vote on election day.

After they are received, mail-in and drop-off ballots are sorted into precincts. “They’re then stored in a locked cabinet, in a locked room, in a locked building where they remain until 7 a.m. on election day,” explained Dori Sawyer, director of elections for Montgomery County

On election day, pre-canvassing begins. That’s the process by which county officials check sealed ballots for signatures, dates, and that the ballot is in the right county. “The pre-canvass process really means looking at every envelope to make sure everything is completed,” said Karen Barsoum, Chester County’s director of voter services.

mail in ballots in PA
Photo by Edmond Dantès

While necessary, pre-canvassing can create delays that put election officials at odds with 24/7 news outlets that want immediate results. Mail-in ballots’ envelopes take time to open, as does confirming the necessary information. And that’s before mail-in votes get counted.

In the 2020 election, counties individually decided when to start the pre-canvassing process. Some started at 7 a.m. on election day, while others waited for polls to close. Some even waited until the following day to begin the process. Once counting began, it happened at locations designated by each county. Ballots were counted using the same scanners used for in-person ballots. Under Act 77, observers are permitted to watch the process. “We also have cameras at the facility, which provide even better view and access,” said Jim Allen, Delaware County’s director of election operations. 

Act 88, passed this summer, aims to improve the process of counting mail-in ballots. Now, instead of waiting for polls to close, Pennsylvania counties are required to begin the pre-canvassing process at 7 a.m. on election day. “Before, it was really up to the counties to decide if they wanted to pre-canvass at 7 a.m.,” Chapman said.

vote counting in PA
Photo by Jonathan Borba

While this will speed up election results, she thinks one day is not enough to pre-canvass. States like Florida and Colorado have more than one day to pre-canvass mail-in ballots, and they’re notorious for being fast counters on election night. “There really needs to be an action by the Pennsylvania legislature to provide additional weeks in advance (to pre-canvass.)”

For now, counties take their own initiatives. Allen said Delaware County is looking to create systems to speed up the way mail-in ballots get to the processing location. Barsoum said that Chester County is adding an extra pick-up to get ballots before 8 p.m. on election day.

mail in ballots in PA
Photo by Edmond Dantès

How does traditional, in-person voting work in Pennsylvania? Sawyer said that steps are already taken to protect the process even before voters fill out their ballots.

Poll books, what voters fill out to document that they were at their polling place, are adjusted and edited to note who has voted before election day via mail-in ballot. “That’s one of the mechanisms in place to prevent people from voting twice,” Sawyer said.

After ballots are cast, they are sent through scanners to be counted. In Chester County, Barsoum said that the judge of elections takes a sealed bag out of the scanner and brings the ballots to voter services on election night. “(The) bag with the ballots stays sealed under a secure camera,” Barsoum said. “We have actual physical security with it, and the results get directly uploaded on election night.”

Those uploaded results are unofficial because they are based on tabulations from the scanners. Then, on the Friday after election day, election officials open the ballots to double check that everything correctly matches what their scanners tabulated.

PA mail in ballots
Delaware County’s Hart Verity Scanner

In Delaware County, Director of Election Operations Jim Allen said that their scanner, the Hart Verity Scan, takes an image of every ballot that it scans. That’s helpful for determining overvote situations, where a voter may have marked two candidates on a ballot. “We can tell the voters’ intent, but the computer can’t,” he said. “The humanizer during the review process then comes into play, and that becomes critical in recounts.”

While county officials seem confident in both their mail-in and in-person voting processes, most of the steps they take to protect the voting process  are invisible to the public. And a group of the public believes, or at least entertains the possibility, that there is voter fraud in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

To combat that and restore what is now called “election integrity,” local election officials are trying to engage and educate voters. That means increasing their social media presence in Montgomery County, training poll workers to be more prepared to handle questions and concerns in Delaware County, and creating educational videos in Chester County. “With social media, there’s more opportunity for misinformation to spread,” Chapman said. “The best counter is voter education and making sure we are getting accurate information out there about the process.”

Want more regional news? Read about Winterthur’s Jackie Kennedy exhibit, Bryn Mawr Night on Sept. 23, and Valley Forge National Park.

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