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What could trigger costly, time-consuming election recounts in Pa.? 3 signatures and $50

Bruce Siwy / Erie Times-News / Published April 15, 2024

Some organizations are calling for changes to Pennsylvania’s system for launching recounts, though the odds of reforms occurring before the November general election seem slim.

Groups including Better PA believe the current practice provides space for bad-faith efforts to disrupt or delay electoral certification in the commonwealth. John Jones III, a retired federal judge in Pennsylvania, said members of these organizations argue that the state’s General Assembly should adopt more stringent rules for initiating a recount in order to avoid the potential for post-election chaos.

“The recount law has not been amended or changed to fit the times by the Pennsylvania Legislature,” said Jones, a board member for Keep Our Republic, a nonprofit that bills itself as a nonpartisan civic education organization “with a unique focus on the unconventional threats facing our election system, and on ways to help strengthen trust in our electoral system.”

“What if you get out of 36 days (from the election) and it’s time to deliver and certify the electoral votes to the United States Congress and Pennsylvania hasn’t certified the election results? And if you don’t certify the election results, you don’t know who the electors are. That’s a major issue that really remains unresolved and could arise,” Jones said.

Pennsylvania automatic recount

Under existing law, an automatic recount is triggered when the difference between candidates who appear on ballots statewide is less than a half-percentage point. This is also triggered if a ballot question falls within this narrow margin.

A recent example took place in 2022, when U.S. Senate hopefuls Mehmet Oz and David McCormick were separated by fewer than a thousand votes in the Republican primary.

Can Pa. voters request recounts?

Under Section 1701 of the Pennsylvania Election Code, recounts can also occur if three qualified voters within a precinct file a petition “alleging that upon information which they consider reliable they believe that fraud or error … was committed in the computation of the votes cast … or in the marking of the ballots.” The petition is to be accompanied with a $50 deposit made payable to the county treasurer if no fraud or substantial errors are discovered.

“It is not necessary for the petitioners to specify in their petition the particular act of fraud or error which they believe to have been committed, nor to offer evidence to substantiate the allegations of their petition,” the section states.

According to research from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only eight states allow voters to trigger recounts: Alabama, Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. The barriers vary widely.

In Massachusetts, for instance, a statewide recount requires 1,000 signatures and a district recount via petition signed by one-fourth the number of voters required to sign nomination papers for state primary candidates.

Pennsylvania’s system, Jones said, could create problems. The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act of 2022 requires each state’s chief executive or designee to call the state for the winning candidate and his or her electors by Dec. 11.

“That is designed, obviously, to get around this idea that there’s an alternate slate of electors,” Jones said.

If precincts or entire counties remain mired in recounts or litigation, final tallies may not be in the governor’s hands in time to meet this federal deadline. Jones said what happens at that point is anyone’s guess.

Angela Valvano, executive director of Better PA, said this kind of chaos could be avoided if the state Legislature were to adopt the changes the group proposes.

“It’s important for Pennsylvanians to feel confident in our election results, and it’s also important for Pennsylvanians to feel confident that no one is attempting to undermine the results of a free and fair election for anti-democratic reasons,” Valvano said in an email to the USA TODAY Network. “We need reasonable avenues to ensure elections continue to be well-run in the Commonwealth, and we believe this proposal strikes the right balance.”

Specifically, Better PA calls for

  • increasing the filing fee from $50 to $1,000;
  • requiring a petition in every precinct in which a race appeared on the ballot in order for the recount to proceed; and
  • a mandate for petitioners to sign an affidavit outlining their specific allegations of fraud or error in the election.

Are the Pennsylvania recount rules changing?

In spite of these concerns, there’s no sign of activity on this front within the State Government Committees in Harrisburg.

A spokesperson for state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D-Montgomery) said nothing’s imminent in the state Senate, though she noted the majority Republicans set the calendar for this chamber. No one from the office of state Sen. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson), majority chair of this committee, returned a phone call in relation to this article.

A spokesperson for state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (D-York), majority chair of the House State Government Committee, said Hill-Evans had no comment.

State Rep. Brad Roae (R-Erie), minority chair of this House committee, holds an opposite view on the topic. He said he sees paper ballot recounts as a good thing.

“Very, very few of those sheets of paper actually get looked at,” he said, “and they should be getting looked at.”

Officials in every county should also be applying for election integrity grants, according to Roae.

Implemented in the 2022 budget, the program has provided millions in state funds for counties to pay poll workers and perform a variety of election-related services. Roae said he’s in favor of hand recounts to ensure the accuracy of tallies, plus a mandatory voter ID law and the elimination of dropboxes as safeguards against the potential inclusion of ineligible votes.

“If you don’t apply for it, you still might incur some of those costs,” he said of the election integrity grant program, “so it makes sense just to apply for it.”

County officials must apply for these grants between Aug. 1-15. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development noted that available funding within the election integrity grant program depends on the outcome of the unfinished state budget, which is due by law before the end of June.

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Pennsylvania state capital bureau.