Former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge urges Pennsylvania to speed up mail vote counting

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·5 mins read

A former Republican governor of Pennsylvania on Wednesday called on that state’s Legislature to make a small change to how mail-in ballots are counted that could make a huge difference in how quickly election results are reported in November.

“We must take all steps possible to ensure that officials can still run secure and efficient elections. Any effort to the contrary only serves to discredit the outcome and the sanctity of our vote,” wrote Tom Ridge, who was Pennsylvania’s governor from 1995 to 2001.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. (Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. (Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ridge, along with former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, sent an open letter to the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature asking it to allow election clerks to prepare mail ballots for counting before Election Day.

State law currently prohibits officials from doing anything to expedite the process of counting mail ballots, and because demand for mail-in voting has surged due to concerns over COVID-19, that could delay the result in Pennsylvania — a crucial swing state — by many days.

“While many states go so far as to count ballots prior to Election Day, there is no reason to prevent at least opening envelopes, verifying signatures, and stacking ballots so they’re ready to be counted right away,” wrote Ridge and Granholm, who co-chair a group called Vote Safe, which was formed this year and advocates for expanding access to voting by mail, and for greater congressional funding to states to help make this happen.

Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Democrat Kathy Boockvar, told Yahoo News in late July that she was “in conversations” with the Legislature to allow clerks to open ballots “as much as three weeks in advance of Election Day.” But nothing has yet been announced.

Republicans are seeking to force Democrats to make concessions in return for allowing clerks this time to count mail ballots, said Pennsylvania state Rep. Kevin Boyle, the top Democrat on the House State Government Committee. He said Republicans want to eliminate drop boxes, as well as early voting centers that are currently allowed in some parts of the state, and they want to expand eligibility for poll watching to allow anyone from anywhere in the state to observe voting inside a polling place anywhere else in the state, and challenge voters.

Current law allows poll watchers only to observe and potentially challenge voters inside their own county. Republicans would like to allow those from rural counties to act as poll watchers in urban areas, he said.

“Democrats are not going to budge on that,” Boyle told Yahoo News.

Ridge was asked about the dispute over drop boxes. The Trump campaign has sued Pennsylvania to eliminate drop boxes as well, which are secure receptacles overseen by local elections officials where voters can hand deliver a mail ballot before Election Day.

Ridge put his emphasis squarely on giving clerks enough time before Election Day to process mail ballots and prepare them for counting. “I don’t have a preference,” he said of the drop box dispute. “My real focus is on getting the pre-canvassing moved up.”

Boyle said that current law allows for about 10 early voting centers in the city of Philadelphia, with early voting allowed 50 days ahead of the election.

Ridge and Granholm acknowledged that any change to how elections are conducted might be viewed with suspicion by partisan politicians. But they urged Pennsylvania not to view this change through that lens.

“There is a lot at stake in this year’s election, and it makes sense that dramatic changes in process could be met with trepidation,” they wrote. “But these targeted changes are not that; instead, it’s an acknowledgment of the impact COVID-19 has had on all the other aspects of our lives and this limited administrative change is a smart action to prepare our election systems for this new reality.”

Pennsylvania is one of three important swing states that don’t allow clerks to process mail ballots before Election Day. The others are Michigan and Wisconsin.

Election experts have warned for months of a nightmare scenario in which — because of these restrictive mail ballot rules in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — Trump may have a lead in votes on election night if most Republican voters cast ballots in person while most Democratic voters cast ballots by mail.

President Trump at a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday. (Logan Cyrus/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Trump at a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday. (Logan Cyrus/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

If that happens — and polling suggests it might — Trump could claim victory before mail ballots have been fully counted, and then accuse election officials of stealing the election if mail ballots give Joe Biden a lead. Trump has already claimed over and over this year, without evidence, that there will be cheating and fraud in the election, especially through mail-in voting.

Kentucky’s top election official, who is also an election law adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, recently told Yahoo News that Trump’s claims of widespread election cheating are “not feasible.”

Yahoo News has done extensive reporting over the past few months on mail-in voting, how it works and how much fraud there is in elections. Claims of widespread fraud are false. Fraud occasionally occurs, and mail-in voting is slightly less secure than in-person voting. But incidents of fraud are exceptionally rare, and some states that already conduct their elections entirely by mail have established practices to prevent wrongdoing.

These policies include allowing voters to track their ballots online by a unique bar code and training election officials on how to properly match a voter’s signature on the ballot to their signature on file.

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