Election Officials Worried Pennsylvania Delays Could Fuel Mail-in Ballot Conspiracies

With roughly a month left before political candidates can start gathering signatures to qualify for Pennsylvania's May 17 primary election, state lawmakers have yet to approve a new congressional district map.

The delays have sparked concerns among election officials, including one who worried it would bolster conspiracy theories about mail-in ballots.

With state lawmakers locked in a redistricting stalemate, a court battle seems to be unavoidable. Such litigation could whittle down the amount of time candidates have for their primary campaign and shorten the timelines for counties to organize and mail out ballots.

But the Republican-controlled legislature has resisted pleas from counties to allow them to process mail-in ballots before Election Day, a change that could potentially expedite a counting process that is already shaping up to be tight because of the congressional map fight.

Eugene DiGirolamo, a former state Republican lawmaker who now works as a commissioner for Bucks County, said there has to be a way for lawmakers to reach common ground on the map. If they don't, the results could be "nothing short of a disaster" where election results are still unknown days after the vote took place.

"If they don't get it done, it's going to be a mess for the candidates and it'll be a mess for the counties," DiGirolamo said. "It's going to fuel these conspiracy theories: 'Something's wrong with these mail-in ballots.'"

PA Congressional Map
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's administration has asked for the new district maps by January 24. Above, Wolf speaks on stage during the Geisinger National Symposium on November 9, 2017, in Danville, Pennsylvania. Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Geisinger Symposium

The vast majority of states allow it—including big Republican-controlled states like Florida, Georgia and Texas—and that hang-up in 2020's presidential election dragged out counting, fomented a legion of baseless conspiracy theories launched by former President Donald Trump and kept the winner of Pennsylvania's electoral votes in limbo until the Saturday after the election.

"State government is failing us again," said Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County's elections director.

For this year's election, the boundaries of both congressional and legislative districts must be redrawn to account for a decade of demographic changes identified by the U.S. Census.

There was little sign Friday that any proposed map—either legislative or congressional—can secure the kind of bipartisan acceptance that could avoid litigation.

Governor Tom Wolf's administration has asked for maps by January 24, three weeks before state law allows the start of signature gathering on February 15. From there, it is 13 weeks to the primary election—the maximum under state law—but even that is a tight window for counties, election officials say.

The 13 weeks are barely enough for courts to settle challenges to candidate petitions and for counties to update voter rolls, prepare voting machines and finalize, print and mail out ballots to voters requesting them, county officials say.

In 1992, a partisan stalemate over a new congressional map landed in court. The state Supreme Court kept the primary election date unchanged, but the court case compressed the 13-week period down to seven weeks.

Thirty years later, mail-in voting has made elections far more complicated and time-consuming to run, and election departments are seeing veteran administrators leave because of the growing pressures.

"Even if we have the full amount of time, it's going to be rough," said Marybeth Kuznik, Fayette County's elections director. "But if we have less time, it's going to be extra rough."

If protracted litigation happens, it would be better to delay the primary election date and avoid confusion among candidates and voters, Kuznik said.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward said moving the May 17 primary is a "last resort" while House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff called it "unacceptable and, frankly, unnecessary."

Al Schmidt, a former Philadelphia elections commissioner who is now president and CEO of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said lawmakers and judges have never been particularly sensitive to the time and predictability election administrators need to carry out an election.

"The courts and the Legislature just assume it will work out," Schmidt said. "But it can have catastrophic consequences when it doesn't work out, when it is rushed or when voters get the wrong ballot or when a name is misspelled on a ballot, especially in an environment where everyone assumes when a mistake occurs it is due to nefarious reasons."

There appears to be no mood among Republican lawmakers to pass a narrow bill allowing counties to process mail-in ballots before Election Day without attaching other provisions opposed by Wolf and his fellow Democrats.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mail In Ballots
Delays in Pennsylvania's redistricting process have sparked concerns among election officials, including one who worried it would bolster conspiracies about mail-in ballots. George Frey/AFP via Getty Images