Editorial: Pennsylvania expects an avalanche of mail ballots. Harrisburg's failure to prepare is shameful

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A voter prepares to drop off a ballot at a drop box outside Philadelphia City Hall on May 28, 2020. In a tie vote Monday the Supreme Court rejected a Pennsylvania GOP appeal regarding mail ballots. - YONG KIM/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows Pennsylvania to count mail-in ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 6 is a victory for voters, and for the institution of voting. But the practical impact of the three-day extension the court authorized Oct. 19 is likely to be undercut by Harrisburg’s chronic inability to do its job on behalf of all Pennsylvanians.

President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of potential “fraud” and “stolen” elections have sown enmity, confusion and fear about the integrity of the election nationwide. It’s shameful that Republicans and Gov. Tom Wolf have failed to reach a compromise on the very simple task of prepping an avalanche of ballots for more efficient counting. The final futile attempt appeared to collapse Wednesday.

It should have been a simple step: Allowing mailed ballots to be opened, flattened, prepared for scanning — but neither scanned nor counted — in advance of Nov. 3. Counties across the state, red and blue alike, had sought to “pre-canvass” early arriving ballots in order to more efficiently and expeditiously tally voters’ choices on Nov. 3. But Harrisburg politicians abandoned these public servants and the public itself, in fruitless pursuit of petty partisan advantage.

Pre-canvassing systems are in place in more than 30 states. Without these practical and secure preliminary steps, Pennsylvania election workers will not be able to open, let alone tabulate, a single mailed-in vote until 7 a.m. on Election Day. So ballots arriving through Nov. 6 won’t be the only ones Pennsylvania election workers will still be processing after Election Day.

Given that the state and its 20 electoral votes may well determine the outcome of the presidential race, and that COVID-19 has made many voters wary of potentially long lines and wait times at crowded polling places, one might think Republicans and Democrats would have wanted above all else to encourage voting and enable a speedy count. But now there’s not enough time for all 67 Pennsylvania counties to approve and set up pre-canvassing systems to handle the expected avalanche of ballots by mail.

This is the first presidential election in history involving widespread availability of voting by mail, and the first election in memory to be conducted during a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 so far has claimed more than 220,000 American lives, including more than 8,500 in Pennsylvania; already, a far larger than normal volume of mail-in ballots are being received at county election offices statewide.

As of Thursday, more than 1 million Pennsylvanians had filled out and returned their mail-in ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a private organization. Over 2 million Pennsylvania voters have applied to vote by mail. The deadline to do so is 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The state’s voters are making good-faith efforts to do their part. New registrations have been rising, particularly among Republicans. As The Inquirer reported last week, Philadelphia and suburban residents are volunteering in record numbers to work at the polls. A record turnout is expected.

The circumstances of this year’s presidential election are unprecedented, and its consequences likely will be momentous. But what Harrisburg’s incompetence has offered the state’s voters is nothing but politics as usual.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer