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PA to Make Mail-In Ballots More User Friendly

With many voters having problems correctly filling out their mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania officials designed new ballots to make the process easier to understand.

A federal judge in western Pennsylvania ruled last week that county boards of elections must accept mail-in ballots with the wrong date. The ruling caused Montgomery County to delay certification of its 2023 election results from Nov. 22 to Dec. 4.

“The canvass and tabulation of undated and improperly dated mail-in ballots was completed on Monday, Nov. 27. In accordance with the election code, the results must be posted for a five-day waiting period before they may be certified,” a county spokeswoman said. In Bucks County, the Board of Elections reversed course Monday and added undated ballots to its totals.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt announced Wednesday that redesigned mail ballot materials will be used in the 2024 primary election. The redesigned envelopes and instruction sheets have revised language to explain to voters how to correctly fill out and return their mail-in ballots. The goal is to decrease voter confusion that can lead to completed ballots being rejected and to help county election workers with efficient mail-in ballot processing.

“Gov. Shapiro has made it clear that the commonwealth should help people succeed, not get in their way. In each election cycle since 2020, when no-excuse mail-in voting was implemented in Pennsylvania, we have seen thousands of mail ballots not be counted because of unintended technical errors voters made when completing their ballot,” Schmidt said. “The Shapiro administration is committed to allowing every eligible Pennsylvanian to cast their vote and make their voice heard. Our hope is that these new materials will better assist voters in making sure their completed mail ballot packet is filled out correctly and can be counted.”

The most common reasons for mail ballot rejection in the 2023 primary were arriving after Election Day (46.8 percent of all rejected ballots), lack of a date (20.3 percent), lack of a secrecy envelope (14.9 percent), incorrect date (8.4 percent), and lack of a signature (4.7 percent).

However, critics remain skeptical of the mail-in ballot system.

“If either Gov. Shapiro or Secretary Schmidt won $100 million in the Pennsylvania lottery, I wonder if they would sign the lottery ticket in pencil (as they are suggesting voters mark their ballots) and drop it into the mail. Of course not. Yet they continue to state that mail ballots ‘strengthen our democracy’ as if the more times they say it, they can make it true,” said Linda Kerns, an election lawyer.

“The number of times Pennsylvania has had to tweak this mail ballot process (and the number of lawsuits challenging the flaws) demonstrate the inherent weakness of the system. Shapiro and Schmidt can spend oodles and oodles of taxpayer money revising this glitch-ridden debacle, but mail ballots will never be as secure as showing up in person, no matter how many fancy, color-coded forms their high-paid consultants develop,” said Kerns.

Joy Schwartz, a Republican who ran for Delaware County Council this year and has been demanding the county report the results of required two percent elections audits, was even more blunt.

“Redesigning mail-in ballots to make them more secure is like putting lipstick on a pig. Gov. Shapiro cannot fix an inherently fraudulent system, and why would he want to? The half-way measures he is proposing will not restore confidence in elections or in him,” said Schwartz. “Any remaining faith his misguided Republican supporters may have had in Gov. Shapiro’s intentions to play fair should have been dashed by his recent scheme to inflate Pennsylvania’s dirty voter rolls by linking voter registration to driver’s licenses and undermining the legislature.”

“Any hopes the Pennsylvania GOP has entertained in attempts at out-harvesting the Democrats with mail-in ballots should have evaporated in the early hours of Nov. 8. Until the legislators come to their senses and repeal the mess that is Act 77 (which allowed mail-in ballots), all central counting centers, where the citizens cannot meaningfully track the injection of ballots into the system, must be closed down.

“All ballots, mail-ins included, should be hand and machine counted and reported from the precinct level, as required by law,” said Schwartz. “No election machines should ever be used without meticulous testing and auditing pre and post-election. No drop boxes should be used to collect them. Counties must stop outsourcing their elections to outside vendors like ERIC, Hart, TotalVote, and KnowInk and clean up their own voter rolls through canvassing.

Diane Houser, a Chester County resident who pointed out problems with the county voter rolls, said, “I agree that the redesigned mail ballot materials to give voters clearer instructions may decrease the number of rejected ballots, but this redesign will not ensure that every legal vote is counted. Why aren’t voter rolls being cleaned up? Why are ballots sent to individuals who moved out of state? What safeguards are in place that ensures that only legal citizens are voting? What safeguards are in place to prevent ballot harvesting? Why is there no ID required to verify voters? Why aren’t signatures verified? What is being done to improve chain of custody? Why can an individual receive more than one ballot? What happens to undeliverable ballots?

“So, if Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt truly wants ‘Voting by mail to be a safe, secure, and accessible way for Pennsylvanians to participate in the election process,’ he has some homework to do,” said Houser.

Schwartz said, “Further centralization of elections, as proposed by Shapiro, will further erode the democratic process and will not ensure integrity. You can say goodbye to the commonwealth and hello to the People’s Republic of Pennsylvania.”

Kerns added, “All that said, voters must realize that in order for their vote to count, they must cast it. So, if you are unsure whether you will be able to vote on election day, voting by mail is an option as long as you fill out the ballot carefully and deliver it yourself to the election office. Last season, we watched the Phillies leave too many runners on base – look where that got us. We should not be leaving votes uncast.”

Shapiro Orders Automatic Voter Registration; GOP Cries Foul

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro announced Tuesday that people will automatically be registered to vote when they get their driver’s license or state government ID. Twenty-three other states also have automatic voter registration.

“Pennsylvania is the birthplace of our democracy, and as governor, I’m committed to ensuring free and fair elections that allow every eligible voter to make their voice heard,” Shapiro said. “Automatic voter registration is a commonsense step to ensure election security and save Pennsylvanians time and tax dollars.”

Under the new system, people getting their driver’s license will be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out and choose not to. Under the current system, people can “opt-in” to register if they choose.

“Residents of our commonwealth already provide proof of identity, residency, age, and citizenship at the DMV – all the information required to register to vote — so it makes good sense to streamline that process with voter registration. My administration will keep taking innovative actions like this one to make government work better and more efficiently for all Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said.

Not so fast, Republican legislators responded.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said a new voter registration system should be created through the legislature, not by executive fiat.

“The problem here is not necessarily the end, but the means,” said Cutler. “The governor is following the sad and misguided precedent set by his predecessor that recognizes our election laws need updating and modernized but then disenfranchises the General Assembly from exercising its constitutional prerogative to make laws. This unilateral action on the eve of what is likely to be a hotly contested and close election will cause many Pennsylvania voters to continue to question the security and results of our system.”

Critics of Shapiro’s actions note Pennsylvania has had problems in the past with how it handles voter registration lists.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has admitted to registering foreign nationals to vote for nearly two decades,” said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. “They continue to fight to conceal the full extent of how many foreigners registered to vote through the DMV process. This new automatic voter registration program will crank in more errors to the voter rolls.”

In April 2022, the PILF won a court case against Pennsylvania over registering illegal immigrants to vote. State officials admitted a PennDOT programming “glitch” caused illegal aliens to be able to register. Although the court ordered the state to allow PILF to examine voters’ history, the state has appealed.

Senate state government committee Chairman Sen. Chris Dush (R-Clinton/Elk/McKean/Potter) declared Shapiro’s executive action was unconstitutional.

“Honest, transparent, and secure elections remain the cornerstone of our constitutional republic. Sadly, by unilaterally implementing automatic voter registration, Gov. Shapiro has once again demonstrated his ignorance of the entire electoral process and his inability to work with the legislature as required by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Shapiro’s move “bypasses the checks and balances that are in place to safeguard the interests of all citizens,” Dush said.

“The Pennsylvania Constitution makes it crystal clear that any time government is forcibly compelling the people to do something – in this case, registering online to vote through PennDOT – the rule of law must be followed to the letter.

“The governor’s automatic voter registration scheme amounts to the rigging of the process to favor thoughtless and even accidental registration in the name of ‘democracy.’ Any laws made unilaterally through executive orders – without the full scrutiny and debate that this committee and the legislature are obligated to provide – are the work of tyrants,” said Dush.

Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Shapiro, said the governor does have the power to make this “procedural change” through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Department of State and that it is constitutional.

Joy Schwartz, a Republican running for Delaware County Council, is angry at Shapiro’s move.

“It’s an effort to swell the voting rolls that are already dirty in Pennsylvania ahead of the little election this year and the big election next year,” said Schwartz. Illegal immigrants are “pouring in” and often need driver’s licenses for their jobs. “This will create a big loophole.”

National Chairman of the Election Transparency Initiative and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued the following statement: “Automatic registration is not ‘key to strengthening democracy’ as Gov. Shapiro dishonestly contends—it’s the antithesis of election integrity and threatens the trust of voters in fair, secure, and transparent elections they deserve. Like other schemes, including same-day registration, permanent absentee voter lists, and the automatic mass mailing of absentee ballots and/or absentee ballot request forms, automatic registration leaves virtually no time to verify the accuracy of voter information.

“If you want to increase the likelihood of fraud, multiple or duplicate registrations, and participation of ineligible voters—such as non-citizens and illegal aliens, temporary residents, and convicted felons—look no further than the process of dumping government data onto the voter rolls,” Cuccinelli said.

Schwartz is less worried that illegals will vote than that these names will be used for voter fraud.

“It creates an opportunity for nefarious actors, nongovernmental organizations, to use those voters’ registrations to vote,” she said.

“It’s a naked power grab, as far as I’m concerned,” said Schwartz. “It’s just outrageous, the violations of the legislature’s power by this governor. It’s just shocking.”

The move will increase the problems with Pennsylvania’s elections caused by ballot drop boxes and machines, “making elections less secure.”

“It’s a further consolidating of Democrats’ power,” Schwartz said.

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Delco Candidate Files Petition in Court Over Right to View Mail-in Ballot Envelopes

The standoff continues between Delaware County Council candidate Joy Schwartz and county election officials over viewing and counting the envelopes that mail-in ballots came in for the May 16 primary.

Schwartz and plaintiffs Gregory Stenstrom, Leah Hoopes, and Paul Rumley have filed three petitions asking the Commonwealth Court to intervene. Schwartz and her supporters were initially denied permission to look at the envelopes by county officials. Then, after the certification occurred Thursday, they were told they could. However, Acting Secretary of State Al Schmidt said the names must be redacted from those envelopes first for privacy reasons.

As workers began to affix blue strips of painter’s tape over the names, Schwartz was concerned there would be damage to the envelopes and filed a second court challenge.

However, Schwartz had wanted to see the envelopes before certification, fearing any challenges would be moot once the primary election was certified.

The county Board of Elections voted 2-1 to certify the election on Thursday, with minority Republican member John McBlain voting no.

Schwartz asserted her right to see the materials, saying both McBlain and county GOP Chair Frank Agovino supported her.

“I do not understand the recalcitrance of the county in granting me this request,” she said.

Election Board Chair Ashley Lunkenheimer scolded Schwartz.

“It’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s ironic, as a line in an Alanis Morrisette song. We’ve had so many debates over the chain of custody, and you and others are coming forward to say… ‘Somebody touched the ballots,’ things we’ve found not to be true. And here it is, and you’ve asked to go sorting through some of the materials in an uncertified election… It’s just interesting to me that you, of all people, would be asking to touch some of the election materials.”

McBlain said it was a request to examine the outside envelopes, not the actual ballots. “It seems to me that some of our officials are making decisions based on who the requester is.” He read the regulations saying the materials should “open for public inspection during normal business hours.”

“It is important to allow the public to view the records,” said McBlain. “There’s no good reason why Ms. Schwartz or anyone else can’t see the (envelopes). This board and employees are in the wrong.”

Lunkenheimer said, “Integrity is how we operate.”

Voting services director Jim Allen said, “Act 77 (the mail-in ballots law) is being misquoted.”

In her most recent filing, Schwartz asked the court to “order defendants to immediately comply with the Pennsylvania Open Records Act of 2008, the Election Reform Act of 2019 (revised in 2020) referred to as Act 77, to include the signatures of electors on the expended (opened), absentee MIB envelopes from the May 2023 primary election, and to cease from allowing Plaintiffs to exert their civil rights in violation of USC 42 § 1983.”

Further, Schwartz and other plaintiffs said, “Defendants remain recalcitrant to provide meaningful access to public records, specifically the expended (opened) MIB envelopes for inspection.

“Plaintiffs hold no immediate interest in the ballots, or images of the ballots, or the CVR records with images of the ballots, at this time, and point out that the ‘Risk Limiting Audits’ offered by public officials since 2020 as ‘evidence’ of honest elections only test the efficacy and accuracy of the scanners that record the marks on those ballots, and have little use, or practically nothing to do with gauging the ‘honesty’ of elections.

“Plaintiffs’ interest and subject of controversy before the Honorable Court is (are) the forensic origins and legitimacy of cast absentee ballots, for which only the absentee MIB envelopes and signatures of electors remain as critical and germane evidence of election integrity to ascertain if the votes which were cast by absentee MIB voters were those of verified ‘qualified electors,’ and that the signatures on the MIB envelopes were genuine,” the filing said.

Asked to respond, county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said, “The plaintiffs are seeking records that the Department of State instructed Delaware County to redact so that voters’ personal information was not visible.

“The county began to redact the information – until the plaintiffs said they did not want to view redacted records. There is no validity to the claim that any records were damaged. It will now be up to the court whether to affirm the instructions provided to the county by the Department of State.”

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Delco Candidate Demands to See Mail-In Ballot Envelopes

The results of the May 16 primary are slated to be certified Thursday, June 1.

Not so fast, says Joy Schwartz, a Republican candidate for Delaware County Council.

She requested permission to count the envelopes that the mail-in ballots were sent in. The county denied that request, despite what she claims is clear language under Act 77, the 2019 law that permits mail-in voting.

“They’ve basically denied people those records for five or six different election cycles,” said Schwartz. “In 2020 twice, twice in 2021, twice in 2022, and now again in 2023. So, I am a candidate, running unopposed (in the primary), but I wanted to get ahead of this now because I don’t want to have this fight in November, after the fact.”

Her representative, who was present during ballot “canvassing” at the county warehouse, told her the stack of mail-in ballots was much higher than the stack of envelopes those ballots came in.

“I want to see if the number of outer envelopes matches the number of mail-in ballots,” said Schwartz. “If they have fewer envelopes than mail-in ballots, that’s a huge problem. That has to be investigated.”

But, Schwartz said, she does not have to give a reason to look at the envelopes since those are public records.

John McBlain, a member of the county Election Board and a lawyer, wrote to  County Elections Director James Allen, saying, “25 PS Section 2648 indicates the Board must keep its records open to public inspection and allow for inspections of the records’ during ordinary business hours, at any time when they [the records] are not necessarily being used by the board, or its employees having duties to perform thereto.’

“I do not believe these envelopes are in use by the Board or our employees at this time,” McBlain added.

“Second, it is irrelevant what the motivation is for wanting to examine records. The Board’s response to a statutory duty should not be formed by whether we believe the motivation for the request is valid or supported by a factual basis.

“I, too, have expressed to the requestor that I have no reason to believe the underlying premise that a voluminous amount of mail-in ballots were added and/or that there were a number of mail-in ballots processed that did not arrive in outer envelopes. Nonetheless, it is the public’s right to examine the Board’s documents even if the Board believes such an exercise is a fool’s errand. I believe the Board should make its records as transparent as possible, especially to disprove any unsubstantiated gossip,” McBlain wrote.

McBlain, the minority Republican member, did not respond when DVJournal asked whether he planned to vote to certify the results.

“I’m concerned. I’m exercising my right to see those records,” said Schwartz, a retired American history and civics teacher who taught in the William Penn School District.

Allen disagreed with Schwartz’s interpretation of the law and told her via email that the county made the online mail-in voter list available through the Department of State.

“As an authorized representative, you do not have access to go through the envelopes, which is consistent with the directive from the Department of State that you possess and presented to me in an earlier email.

“The following are among the reasons this request to go through the envelopes at this time is being denied: As Mr. Agovino noted, we are extremely busy and have various tasks to complete as part of the canvass leading up to the certification on Thursday. We do not have the staff to sit one-on-one with you or any other individuals who want to participate.”

Also, “we have one pending recount, and we have other matters that may result in recounts, and we cannot disturb the election materials prior to the completion of (1) the canvass and certification and (2) any necessary recounts. That would be patently unfair to the candidates and would violate basic standards that those campaigns should expect for chain of custody prior to the certification. The deadline was May 12 to file objections to any absentee or mail-in ballots. The review of the physical envelopes serves no legally required function at this time and is not part of the section of Act 77 that you clearly misquoted,” Allen said.

Allen told Schwartz that she could look at the envelopes after the election was certified.

“So, this is their modus operandi, to operate in the dark and to keep people out,” said Schwartz. “It’s got to be challenged.”

Asked to respond, a county spokeswoman said, “The county continues to comply with all requirements of state law. The candidate is misinterpreting the relevant sections of Act 77 and the Election Code.”

Parties Endorse Delaware County Council Candidates for Primary

Delaware County Democrats and Republicans have endorsed candidates for the upcoming primary on May 16.

The council Democratic committee endorsed incumbents Council Chair Monica Taylor, Ph.D., Vice Chair Elaine Paul Schaefer, and Councilwoman Christine Reuther. The three were first elected in 2019 in a historic Democratic sweep of council seats.

The Republican committee endorsed Joy Schwartz, Jeff Jones, and Upland Borough Mayor Bill Dennon for the county council.

Schwartz, a Drexel Hill resident, is a retired history teacher who worked for more than 20 years in the William Penn School District. She is running against the Democratic council’s policies that she believes have failed local communities.

Delaware County Council Chair Monica Taylor, Ph.D.

“If elected, I will lead the charge for common sense, fiscal sanity, safe streets, elections conducted in accordance with administrative code, and the reversal of the progressive agendas that are destroying Delco,” said Schwartz.

Jones, of Upper Darby, is an insurance industry professional and has been active in the community as a youth sports coach. He also served on the Upper Darby Economic Development Committee.

“Our current county council is not delivering on the things that are important to the health, safety, and welfare of our neighbors,” said Jones. “They lack transparency, take no administrative responsibility, and have been fiscally irresponsible with our tax dollars. If we do not rein them in now, the course they have the county heading on will lead to a devastating failure.”

Dennon, who has served as Upland’s mayor for five years, is a maintenance mechanic. He is involved in activities recognizing and honoring veterans. He also served as a site coordinator for the Chester-Ridley-Crum Watersheds Association annual stream cleanup.

Christine Reuther

“It is time for a change, and Delaware County cannot afford any more one-party Democratic rule,” said Dennon. “We need to restore accountability, fiscal responsibility, and sound leadership to Delaware County.”

“Under the Democrats’ one-party rule, Delaware County is facing unprecedented challenges: Closed hospitals and a lack of EMS services; a looming county tax increase; a deteriorating county financial position partisanship that prevents equal access to services, and changes to the county administrative code that has shutout Republicans from participating in the oversight of elections,” said Frank Agovino, chair of the Delaware County Republican Party. “We want to ensure our county government operates effectively and fairly while also ensuring a brighter future for all Delaware County residents.”

Taylor is a professor and program director in the kinesiology department at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia. In addition to her teaching, research, and administrative duties, she works on community outreach projects to educate high school students about potential future careers in the healthcare industry. She spearheaded a project in Philadelphia elementary schools to introduce young students to science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).

Elaine Schaefer

Taylor, who formerly served on the Upper Darby School Board, lives with her husband and two daughters in Upper Darby.

Schaefer, a lawyer and former Radnor Township commissioner co-founded the Radnor Conservancy. She is the executive director of the Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area. Schaefer and her husband, John, are the parents of three children.

Also a lawyer, Reuther is “of counsel” to the Devon law firm McCausland Keen and Buckman. She is vice president of the Child Guidance Resource Centers board, a community mental and behavioral health service provider. She is a former Nether Providence commissioner, serves as the Nether Providence representative on the board of directors of the Central Delaware County Authority, and is the Rutledge Borough solicitor. She lives in Wallingford with her husband. They also raised three children.

The Democrats’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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