IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Critical swing states push for 'simple change' to make counting mail-in ballots easier

"It's quite a simple change and should not be such a heavy lift," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, told NBC News.
Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley holds up a sample mail-in ballot during a news conference last month.Matt Slocum / AP

There's a "simple change" that makes counting mail-in votes easier but some critical swing states still don't allow it.

Already, 32 states — under both Democratic and Republican control — allow for the county-level election overseers to begin processing ballots before Election Day— a process known as "pre-canvassing." But in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, election officials have not been able to begin doing so until Election Day.

Pre-canvassing involves checking the ballots for eligibility, preparing them to be scanned and other manual steps that can be time-consuming. The process can also include counting and tabulating the votes, as is the case in Pennsylvania. Election officials, facing record numbers of mail-in ballots, say that if they are able to begin this work before Election Day, they will be able to complete the final vote count much more quickly.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly lamented that the counting of ballots may not be completed in some states by the end of Election Day. But pre-canvassing of ballots in those earlier mentioned states will help speed the process, officials said.

"It'll take forever," Trump said at a new conference last month. "You think Nov. 3? You might not have — I guess, at a certain point, it goes to Congress. You know, at a certain point, it goes to Congress. You know that."

Nowhere is the battle to allow for pre-canvassing more pronounced than in Pennsylvania. At a news conference Thursday, Jeff Snyder, president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and a Republican commissioner of Clinton County, called for pre-canvassing by saying that "if state leaders want to run the risk of negative national news coverage during a presidential election — in a battleground state — with anticipated high turnout, then they should do nothing."

Snyder said that it could take "days or even weeks" until the final results are known if pre-canvassing is not allowed in his state, one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds this election.

Pennsylvania officials predict they could see in the neighborhood of 3 million mail-in votes this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A Republican legislative proposal that would allow for pre-canvassing to begin three days before Election Day is currently tied up in the GOP-controlled state Legislature. But it also includes poison pills for Democrats like allowing for poll watchers to go to polling sites anywhere in the state rather than exclusively their home county while banning satellite absentee ballot drop boxes.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he would not sign the legislation as is.

"If we want Pennsylvania to have timely election results on election night — we've become accustomed to it and we know the nation will be looking to Pennsylvania in the midst of this competitive presidential election — then the ability to do pre-canvassing prior to Election Day is absolutely vital to that process," Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, told NBC News.

Her organization has asked for 21 days worth of pre-canvassing, though she says any amount of time prior to Election Day will be helpful. But she isn't holding her breath that the current legislative proposal will be approved.

"Given the political nature of the bill, it's unclear to us at this point whether we'll be able to just get a bill that speaks specifically to pre-canvassing to the governor's desk," she said.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican who recently announced his support for Joe Biden, said it doesn't make any sense that allowing for pre-canvassing in his state has been such a struggle.

"We want an accurate count. We want a legitimate vote," said Ridge, who co-chairs the bipartisan VoteSafe group. "And we want it done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. If that's the goal, give them time to do it and start pre-canvassing several days before election day."

He attributed the pushback to one side seeing a "perverted political benefit" to making the vote count harder.

Trump "has basically suggested, if not suggested inferred, that any delay in counting reflects a fraudulent effort to undermine the election, which is absolute drivel, nonsense," Ridge said, adding that a delayed vote count would allow Trump to say: "'I told you so. There's something funny about those elected officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania.'"

Schaefer disputed concerns about election security.

"Once those envelopes are open, those ballots will be properly and securely stored away," she said. "They have a limited chain of custody as to who would be able to access them. And we would take great care with them as much as we take care with the voting machines and as we've taken care of absentee ballots in the past."

Efforts to allow for pre-canvassing have faced similar uphill battles in two other closely watched swing states: Michigan and Wisconsin.

Pre-canvassing is not permitted in Wisconsin, which sent out around 1 million absentee ballots last month. The Legislature, which is currently out of session, is unlikely to pass any legislation on the issue before Election Day.

It's "an option that clerks would certainly like to have, but it's not something that's gone anywhere," Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told NBC News.

In Michigan, which could see as many as 3 million mail-in votes, the GOP-controlled Legislature recently passed a bill that would allow for just one day of pre-canvassing.

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican, said the bill will ensure that clerks have "enough time to process these ballots" and "that we have election integrity and the voters have certainty and peace of mind that the results are what they voted for."

"And I think both are equally important, and we can't do one without the other," he added.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said that legislation — not yet signed into law — is "a step in the right direction," but more time for pre-canvassing is needed. She said one week would much more effective than a single day.

"It's quite a simple change and should not be such a heavy lift," she said.