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HomeElections in PA

Exploring Free and Fair
   Elections in Pennsylvania

 

 

"For over a century, the League of Women Voters has fought to protect the rights of eligible voters and expand access for those who have been left out of our democratic process.  To that end, LWV PA supports effective election laws that ensure that elections are accessible, transparent, fair, secure, and recountable, promote universal voter participation, and provide voters with meaningful choices when they go to the polls."

Carol Kuniholm, LWVPA Vice President for Government and Social Policy
Statement at the PA House State Government Hearing, April 15, 2021. 

Read the full statement here:     LWVPA Statement to PA State Government Committee.

Thinking About Elections Blog 

-Juliet Zavon




Subscribe to the Thinking about Elections blog for background and perspective on elections and election law.

Recent Blogs
Thinking About Elections
In 2020,  Pennsylvania elections were in the spotlight for many reasons, including;
  • major changes in election law, including the introduction of new voting machines, and no-excuse, mail-in voting,
  • pandemic-related changes, including changes in polling places, and
  • swing state status in a heavily contested Presidential election.
This page provides information and resources you need to understand Pennsylvania's election process and enables you to advocate effectively for fair, efficient, and secure elections in PA. 

What would you like to explore?
Elections are complicated! 

While our federal election schedule and fundamental right to vote is set by the U.S. Constitution and federal law, many voting laws are set by each state's legislature, and the nuts and bolts of carrying out the election are administered at the county level. 

Click below to see how different levels of government affect the way you vote.

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US Constitution and Federal Law
US Constitution and Federal Law
  • Allows Congress to set a national Election Day for federal elections.
  • Guarantees voting rights to citizens over the age of 18 regardless of race or gender
  • Defines the Electoral College system for presidential elections.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans poll taxes, literacy tests and other practices which disenfranchise minority voters.
  • The Help America Vote Act of 2002 describes baseline standards for administering elections.
  • The US Constitution grants individual state legislatures the authority to determine any remaining details concerning "the Times, Places and Manner" of holding elections.


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Pennsylvania Constitution and Law
Pennsylvania Constitution and Law
  • Sets Pennsylvania election dates and deadlines.
  • Defines the voter registration process, methods and qualifications, including methods for changing or updating registrations.
  • Requires maintenance of a statewide registration database with specified fields.
  • Describes procedures for absentee and mail-in voting, including overseas military voting.
  • Sets up a "closed primary" system, requiring party membership to vote for primary candidates.
  • Defines penalties for fraud or interference with elections.


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Allegheny County Elections Division
Allegheny County Elections Division
  • Arranges polling places for all 1,300+ Allegheny County precincts.
  • Hires, trains, and pays 6,000+ poll workers to staff precincts on Election Day.
  • Designs  ballots for each election, showing the proper candidates for each ward and precinct.
  • Arranges for the ballots to be printed and distributed to precincts.
  • Manages the mail-in process for Allegheny County.
  • Sets any extended hours, drop box or secure drop-off locations as needed.
  • Purchases voting machines and scanning equipment.
  • Secures and counts ballots after voting ends.
  • Publishes results of all races in Allegheny County.


In other words, most election procedures are determined by states and counties.   This means that voters across the United States vote using many different sets of laws and procedures.  Even voters in the same state may have different procedures from county to county.    Click here to jump to "A Look at Other States  "

1.  Free and Fair?  Well, When and Where?...a historical perspective
In his memoir, "A Full Life," Jimmy Carter tells the story of his first political campaign -- a special election Democratic primary for state senate in Georgia...  

On election day, as members of his campaign went to the polls to greet voters, they discovered one precinct where the local party chairman, Joe Hurst, was brazenly manipulating the vote -- telling each voter to vote for Carter's opponent, watching as they filled in the ballot, and even throwing out ballots he didn't like.  When Carter arrived and confronted him, Hurst brushed him off, and continued to openly flaunt the rules, suggesting that Carter call the county sheriff.  The sheriff, a personal friend of Hurst's seemed to find the situation amusing, and took no action.

The election was close -- close enough to hinge on the vote in Hurst's precinct -- and when Carter lost, he decided to appeal...to the Democratic Executive Committee  which was chaired by Joe Hurst and his allies.   Although Carter had many signed affidavits from witnesses to the fraud, Hurst was able to dismiss the case before hearing the evidence. 

Although Carter's family and friends advised him to drop the issue, he decided to request a recount -- a request that ended up revealing everything from dozens of votes from people beyond the grave, to ballots hidden in a shoebox under Hurst's daughter's bed.  Eventually, the precinct had to rerun the election, and Jimmy Carter won the seat that launched his political career.  
Jimmy Carter for Senate
 
It is shocking to read about open corruption like this in a US election.  It sounds more like an election in a banana republic -- (and one that would not pass inspection by the Carter Center's international election monitors.)  

In the US, we expect our elections to be secure and fair.  But, elections will always be a target for cheating, and so we need effective legislation in place to keep our elections secure.   Federal bills like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 set baseline standards for federal elections, and help election standards adapt to social and technological changes.

There are many examples in American history of once-common election practices that we reject today.  The standards of election integrity we expect today are the result of two centuries of election reform.

Evolving election practices in the US


Free Drinks!

In early US history, Election Day had a festival atmosphere with parades, speeches, and food and drinks provided by the campaigns. Candidates were expected to "treat" the voters with rum or beer. George Washington initially didn't approve of the idea, but after losing his first election for a seat in Virginia's colonial legislature, he won his second election with the help of 144 gallons of beer, rum, and hard cider.


...but BYOB (Ballot)

Until the 1820s, voters either voted by voice, or brought their own handwritten ballots when they came to the polls. It wasn't until the 1830s that pre-printed ballots were available, and these were provided by political parties and campaigns, not by election officials. Lists of recommended candidates or "party tickets" were printed in newspapers or handed out at the polling place. Because everyone could see which ticket you were carrying into the polling place, it was easy to bribe or threaten voters on Election Day.


The Secret Ballot

Today we take the secrecy of our votes as a given, but the secret ballot was controversial when it was introduced in the 1850's. Some reformers saw it as a welcome correction to the rampant vote-buying and vote-bullying at the polls. And, of course, some factions were interested in keeping the vote-buying going. Other reformers warned that illiterate voters would be disenfranchised if no one could help them read or write at the polls. And, of course, some factions saw this as a benefit, especially as newly freed slaves became eligible to vote after the Civil War. Secret ballots became common in the 1890s.

Literacy Tests

Secret ballots made it more difficult to buy and sell votes, but as predicted, they also made it difficult for illiterate or undereducated citizens to vote at all. They also opened the door to literacy tests, which became widespread in the South after the 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote. Many of these tests asked complicated legal or historical questions that most voters, black or white, could not answer, but voters did not have to take the test if their grandfathers had been eligible to vote. White voters were "grandfathered in" and black voters were disqualified with this loophole. Literacy tests were only outlawed in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Learn more about US election history with these resources:


"Rock, Paper, Scissors: How We Used to Vote" Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, October 6, 2008


Race and Voting The Constitutional Rights Foundation


"The First Campaign: An excerpt from Jimmy Carter's new memoir, A Full Life , Atlanta Magazine, August 13, 2015


Graphic by ABCNEWS.com

"Hanging Chads" and the Move to (and from) Electronic Voting Machines

In the 2000 presidential race,  mechanical problems with punch-card ballots delayed results and ultimately tipped the election.   Afterwards, many states, including Pennsylvania, opted to adopt “Direct Recording Electronic" (DRE) voting machines in place of mechanical and paper systems.  The goal was to eliminate errors caused by mechanical malfunction, and to improve the speed and accuracy of the counting process. 

These DREs did eliminate ambiguity -- the voter had either made a selection or not, and there were no physical ballots that could be damaged, altered, or jammed in a tallying machine.   And computerized counts were definitely faster and more accurate than hand or mechanical counts of paper ballots. 

But the use of electronic voting machines introduced a new vulnerability.  How do voters know that the machines are programmed correctly?  Could they have been hacked?  Do they record each vote accurately, or display one result and record another?  And perhaps most importantly, if they are recording votes incorrectly, how can you tell?

Within a decade, concerns about computer hacking led to a trend back to voting systems with a paper trail.  Allegheny County's  DRE machines  were replaced by  a paper ballot and optical scanning system in 2020.

We take pride in our history of free and fair elections in the US, but much of that history does not meet our current standards for election integrity.  Election practices in the US are always changing and adapting to address equity, security, and practical challenges.  

2.  Fraud and Fixes in Pennsylvania...
A.  Does Pennsylvania need an "Arizona-style" audit?  

In 2020, there were allegations that some of Pennsylvania's voting machines had been hacked or reprogrammed to change the vote count.   Some claims of fraud alleged that the voting equipment was designed to give more weight to votes for one candidate than the other.  For example, one lawyer stated in a news interview that machines weighted one candidate's votes at 77% and the opponent's votes at 122%.  Another claim was that the machines were programmed to simply "flip" a certain percentage or number of votes from one candidate to the other.  

These allegations have been debunked and retracted in court cases, and the people who made them are being sued for defamation.   Still, some people are  calling for Pennsylvania to conduct an "Arizona-style" audit to restore voter confidence.  What kind of evidence, and what types of audits could lay these charges to rest?

The Big Question:  Is the recorded election result an accurate tally of the votes cast?


To audit the actual vote tally, paper ballots are crucial.  Detecting faulty or “hacked” code on a voting machine requires specialized training, and the process is not understandable to the average observer.  Allegheny County used paperless voting machines until 2020 when they were replaced by a paper ballot and optical scanning system.  While many Pennsylvanians were surprised to find paper ballots instead of voting machines at their polling places in 2020, a return to paper ballots allows for an audit process that everyone can observe and understand -- counting.   


If the machine tally is in question, physical ballots are literally "solid" evidence of how votes were cast.   Inclusion of observers from opposing political parties and adherence to "chain of custody" protocols  provide all citizens, no matter what their politics, with a process they can trust. 

How Does PA Audit the Vote Tally?
Pennsylvania performs a Traditional Audit, and is moving to require Risk-Limiting Audits by November of 2021.
 
In 2020, Risk-limiting Audits were performed in 63 of PA's 70 counties as part of a pilot project.  

What is a Traditional Audit?    In a traditional audit, paper ballots from a sampling of precincts are examined and recounted to make sure they match the recorded vote. Traditional audits look at small fraction of the vote. Pennsylvania requires each county to audit 2% or 2000 (whichever is less) of the votes from each county.  This type of audit serves as a spot check.


What is a Risk-Limiting Audit? While a traditional audit is complete once the target number of ballots is audited, a risk-limiting audit is complete when enough ballots have been audited to ensure that the recorded election result is correct.  How do auditors decide when they've "seen enough?" They use the same kinds of statistical analysis used by medical researchers or forensic investigators to calculate the likelihood that the election results are accurate.  If the election is close, or there are significant errors found in the audit, the risk-limiting audit will continue adding ballots to the audit total, and can escalate to a full recount.  In 2020 Pennsylvania ran a pilot risk-limiting audit, made possible by the shift to paper ballots.


Is an Audit the Same as a Recount?  No.   The traditional and risk-limiting audits involve recounting some ballots, but not all. And some audits check other parts of the election process, like polling place practices, or voting equipment standards.  Sometimes, information found in an audit can lead to a full recount, and risk-limiting audits are designed to do this when necessary.  

In Pennsylvania, an automatic recount is required in an election that is decided by less than 0.5% of the vote. If the margin is wider, a candidate may request (and pay for) a recount.

The 2020 election results in Pennsylvania have already been verified by professional audits.

Learn more about Pennsylvania's audit process here:  VotesPA - Post Election Audits


Learn more about election audits here:

The What, Why, and How of Election Audits, The National Conference of State Legislatures, August 5, 2021


Federal Constraints on Post-Election "Audits", US Department of Justice, July 28, 2021

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What is a "Forensic Audit"?
What is a "Forensic Audit"?

The term "forensic audit" does not describe a specific auditing method or process. The term "forensic" refers to the use of evidence and scientific methods to build a case or prove a theory. When people use the term "forensic audit," they are often describing an audit that reviews physical or digital evidence to determine the source or cause of a problem in an election.

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What are "Chain of Custody" Protocols?
What are "Chain of Custody" Protocols?

Many businesses and professions need to protect valuable assets like money, valuables or sensitive information. Chain of custody protocols are designed to create a record every time these assets are accessed, moved or altered. When someone accesses controlled substances in a hospital pharmacy, or crime scene evidence in a police locker, or cash register contents at a retail business, they need to follow procedures like signing the items in and out, and recording any incidents or changes that occurred while the items were in their custody.  Chain of custody procedures are usually combined with physical security like locks or safes, and monitoring by guards or security cameras to ensure that valuable assets are always in "good hands". These same kinds of professional standards are used in elections. 

Election officials in each state are legally responsible for securing election materials.  Security procedures vary from state to state, but all combine chain-of-custody procedures with monitoring and physical security to safeguard ballots, records, and election equipment.
Professional and Legal Standards for Conducting Election Audits

  • performed and monitored by state or county election officials, or credentialed professionals contracted by election officials
  • funded by the state, or by the candidate requesting the audit or recount
  • use a predetermined and consistent method for reviewing records
  • limit access to data and equipment to prevent tampering
  • preserve evidence by following chain-of-custody and security protocols

audit blue on gold

A valid audit must maintain security and chain-of custody protocols when handling ballots, records and equipment, so that evidence is preserved and the audit is repeatable.
Concerns with a privately funded, "Arizona-style" audit

The independent audit performed in Maricopa County, AZ violated multiple security protocols and professional standards.
  • performed by an outside company, taking ballots, records and voting equipment outside of the control of election officials who are responsible for preserving them
  • funded by partisan groups supporting one candidate
  • violated standard, professional, security protocols by leaving records and equipment unattended
Election officials from both parties rejected the results before they were even published.

Read AZ election officials' statements about the Maricopa County independent audit here:



Report on the Partisan Review of the 2020 General Election in Maricopa County" , Katie Hobbs(D), Arizona Secretary of State, August 19, 2021


"Dear Arizona Republicans" , an open letter to Arizona Republicans from Stephen Richer(R), Maricopa County Recorder, August 19, 2021


B.  Do we need Signature Matching?
There were many allegations and fears of voter fraud surrounding the 2020 presidential election -- most of them centered on mail-in voting.  There were also multiple court cases, recounts and even an outsider's offer of a million-dollar reward for anyone exposing voter fraud in Pennsylvania.  Despite all of this interest and attention, out of nearly 7 million votes cast,  fewer than 10 cases of voter fraud have been found -- all cases of people voting by mail for dead relatives.


This type of voter fraud by individual citizens is the easiest to 
commit -- A dead relative is not going to show up at the polls or request an absentee ballot and expose the fact that someone else has voted for them.  However, it is difficult to avoid being caught in the long run.  The relative's death certificate will eventually be checked against the voter registration records -- this is required by law nationwide -- and when the check finds that someone has voted from beyond the grave, the investigation focuses quickly on a household member or close relative.  

 

This type of fraud may result in a few extra votes being added to the certified count, because the fraud will not be discovered (and prosecuted) until later.

Can you identify the matching pairs in this exercise from Colorado's Signature Verification Guide ? Give it a try. Answers are included in the training guide.

Signature matching is one of the reforms being considered in Pennsylvania, and polls show that it is widely popular with voters of all parties.   But, even though matching signatures seems like common sense, there are many practical problems that come along with its use.  

  • Signature matching is not an exact science -- it's a judgment call.
  • Signature matching machines can only do an initial screening, matching 20-40% of signatures.  The rest have to be checked by an election worker, slowing the process.
  • Pennsylvania's proposal, (like most states requiring a signature match,) does not require training for election workers.
  • Someone's signature can change because of injury, illness, vision changes, or aging.
  • Young voters' signatures are challenged more often -- possibly because they rarely use cursive or sign documents, and their signatures are still evolving.
  • Signature matching results in the ballots of thousands of eligible voters  being rejected in states that require it.*
Although only a few cases of fraud have been found, politicians are reacting to public concern and framing the reforms as a way to increase voter confidence in our elections.  
Without Signature Matching

Out of 1.3 million mail-in votes cast in PA, fewer than 10 illegal votes were cast, and these were caught by record checks, without the need for signature matching.  

illegal votes
counted 
<10

Which option secures your vote?

How do you weigh the effects?

With Signature Matching   

More than 1,300,000 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in 2020.  A low estimate of the potential effect of signature matching is

legal votes
thrown out

~1,300* 
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* More on ballot rejection estimates
* More on ballot rejection estimates

*It is impossible to calculate an exact figure, since states use such different procedures. However, about 1% of mail-in ballots are rejected nationwide. Most are rejected because they are late, but the second most common reason is for missing or mis-matched signatures. Using a low estimate of 0.1% of ballots being rejected for a mismatched signature, we can estimate that 1,300 of PA's 1.3 million ballots would have been rejected for signature mismatch in 2020. That's 1,300 eligible voters who voted in good faith.  


 Read more here:   "Signed, Sealed, Delivered - Then Discarded" , The Atlantic October 21, 2020

C.  A suitcase full of ballots? How easy is large-scale fraud?
It is easy to imagine someone printing extra copies of the ballot and "stuffing the ballot box" by dropping them in the mail or leaving them at an elections office anonymously....UNTIL you realize how complicated election administration is, and how many cross checks and safeguards are built into the system. 

The first problem is the idea of duplicating "THE" ballot. Because there are so many precincts (1,300+ in Allegheny County alone,) and every precinct has its own distinct version of the ballot, the first question would be, " Which of the thousands of versions of "THE Pennsylvania ballot" should I duplicate?" 

 

Then there's the problem of submitting them.  Mail in ballots are only accepted in their official return envelopes, and each envelope has a unique barcode, identifying the voter who requested it. Ballots without the individually barcoded envelopes are discarded. 

 

Dropping off a suitcase or box of fraudulent ballots at the polling place or during the ballot counting process would also be very difficult. Polling places and ballot processing facilities are monitored by partisan and non-partisan observers, and sometimes by security cameras. 

 

And, adding the fraudulent votes to official counts would raise red flags when a precinct's ballot totals did not match turnout records. Careful records of voter turnout are kept for each precinct.


The more you learn about the details of election administration, the harder it is to believe claims of large-scale voter fraud.


Voter Turnout is tracked by precinct

Every ballot that is issued or collected must be requested by a verified, registered voter, by mail or at the polling place.


If you vote by mail, your ballot is mailed in a personalized envelope with a unique barcode that identifies your voter record.  When you return the ballot by mail, your turnout is recorded.

If you vote in-person, your turnout is recorded by poll workers.

Whether you vote by mail or in-person,  your turnout is linked to your precinct.

All ballots are identified with

a certain precinct.

Cross-checking the recorded voter turnout for the precinct will detect the extra ballots.

Ballots are tracked by precinct

There are over 1,300 precincts in Allegheny County alone, and each precinct has a unique version of the ballot.  

After votes are counted, results show how many of each precinct's ballots were cast.  This is compared with recorded voter turnout in the precinct- either in-person, or by mail.   

A suitcase full of duplicated ballots (even if it could get past security) would add votes to certain precincts without adding voters.   The mismatch would be easily detected in these precinct numbers.  
3.  A Look At Other States

Many of the election practices being debated in Pennsylvania are already used in some form in other states.  States are sometimes called the "laboratories of democracy," and it makes sense to look at what happens when different states "experiment" with different election methods.  
A.  No Excuse Mail-in Voting

In 1978, California became the first state to allow no-excuse mail-in voting. The percentage of California voters voting by mail rose steadily from under 10% to about 65% by 2018, and jumped to over 85% in the 2020 general election.




Pennsylvania allowed no-excuse mail-in voting for the first time in 2020. Almost 40% of voters chose to vote by mail, in part because of the pandemic.

Utah, a reliably red state, is an "all mail" state. All ballots are distributed by mail. There are no polling places...



...while New York, a reliably blue state, requires an excuse for mail-in voting.



How many states use Mail-in Voting?


Every state has some form of mail-in ballot.  16 states require an excuse for a voter to vote "absentee."  In these 16 states, an average of 9% of voters state an excuse, such as illness, disability, or being away from home for work, school, or military service and vote absentee by mail.  So, even in states without "no-excuse" mail-in voting, almost 1 in 10 voters vote by mail.  

Does no-excuse Mail-in Voting increase turnout?


Mail-in voting increases turnout slightly
(1-2%) in presidential or high-interest elections, and more significantly in local, primary and special elections where turnout is traditionally low.  

Does Mail-in Voting benefit one political party over another?

Mail-in voting does not change the vote-share of Republicans and Democrats.  Democrats were more likely to vote by mail in 2020, while Republicans were more likely to vote in-person, but this seems to represent a substitution of one form of voting for another.   In other words, it did not change "who" voted - just "how" they voted. 

The LWVPA supports the continuation of no-excuse, absentee voting.

Learn more with these resources:


"Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail, and Other Voting at Home Options. National Conference of State Legislatures, 9/24/2020.


 "Universal vote-by-mail has no impact on partisan turnout or vote share", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020


"Voting by Mail and Absentee Voting" , MIT Election Data & Science Lab, 2021


Covid and the US Election: will the rise of mail-in voting affect the result?  Nature, October 23, 2020

B.  Primaries:  Closed, Open, and In Between


In Tennessee, voters register without choosing a party. All voters are unaffiliated and may vote in the Republican, Democratic, or other primary on election day.


Washington state uses a "Top Two" primary system. Candidates from all parties are listed on the same primary ballot. The top two vote-getters face off in the general election. This means that the two candidates running in November could be from the same party.

Arizona has partially open Primaries. Voters who are registered as Republicans or Democrats can only vote in their own primary, but unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in either primary race.


Pennsylvania has closed primaries. Voters can choose a party when they register to vote. Only voters who choose to register with the Democratic or Republican parties are able to vote in the primary election. Unaffiliated or "third-party" voters cannot vote.



Let's Open Primaries in PA


Copy this link to share: www.lwvpgh.org/docs.ashx?id=817991

The LWVPA supports opening Pennsylvania's primary to voters who are not registered with any party.  Here's why:

  • There are over 1,300,000 registered voters in PA without a party affiliation, and LWVPA believes they should have a voice in primaries.
  • Empowering these "independent" voters forces candidates to consider moderate views, rather than shaping their policies to please a partisan base.
  • In many smaller races, all of the candidates are members of the same party, and only one candidate will run in the fall.  In effect, the final result is decided in the primary when independent voters are excluded.
       <--- Learn more in the infographic

More information on the many types of primary races in the 50 states is available from the National Conference of State Legislatures:    State Primary Election Types
C. Automatic and Same-Day Voter Registration


North Dakota has no voter registration. Voters provide proof of citizenship and eligibility at their polling place each time they vote.


Maryland has same-day voter registration. Voters who provide a driver's license as ID at their polling place on Election Day are matched to a list of eligible, non-registered voters provided by the Maryland DMV and are permitted to vote on a regular ballot.


In Pennsylvania, voters must register 15 days before Election Day in order to vote in the upcoming election.

West Virginia has automatic voter registration. Anyone who applies for a driver's license or ID at the DMV is automatically registered to vote if they are eligible. Voters may opt out of registering.

The LWVPA supports same-day and automatic voter registration.  


4.  Additional Resources
When will ballots be available?  Has your polling place changed?  How many voters have requested mail-in ballots?  Will there be drop-boxes? ...

You can receive weekly email updates from the Allegheny County Elections Board during election seasons by subscribing here:    Subscribe to "Allegheny Votes" Newsletter