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Stalemates, court battles could squeeze Pennsylvania's primary election

The American flag flies at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018, in Harrisburg, Pa.
Jacqueline Larma
The American flag flies at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018, in Harrisburg, Pa.

More extreme time pressures could push the bounds of how Pennsylvania's elections are run in 2022, with wide-open races for a U.S. Senate seat and the governor's office driving voter interest and partisan stalemates in the statehouse sowing uncertainty.

It is barely a month before candidates can legally start gathering signatures to qualify for primary ballots and Pennsylvania still has no new map of district boundaries for congressional seats and state legislative seats.

A court battle looks inevitable, potentially shortening the primary campaign period for candidates for Congress and the Legislature and squeezing the timeline for counties to finalize and mail out ballots.

Meanwhile, despite two years of asking, counties remain unable to persuade the Republican-controlled Legislature to simply grant their request to let them process mailed-in ballots before Election Day.

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.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has asked for maps by Jan. 24, three weeks before state law allows the start of signature gathering on Feb. 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 election 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, R-Westmoreland, said moving the May 17 primary is a “last resort” while House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, called it “unacceptable and, frankly, unnecessary.”

Al Schmidt, a former Philadelphia election 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.

Eugene DiGirolamo, a former state Republican lawmaker and now a Bucks County commissioner, said there is undoubtedly a way for lawmakers to compromise, give counties what they want and avoid “nothing short of a disaster” where contest results remain unknown for days after the election.

“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.’”