Reflecting on the 2020 Pennsylvania Election
Pennsylvania was called for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris four days after the polls opened on Election Day in 2020. Four days was enough time for me to post 41 videos on social media explaining the election dynamics playing out in Pennsylvania. Four days was also enough time for conspiracy theorists—including our former President—to spread baseless accusations and misinformation aimed at undermining the integrity of our democracy, sowing doubt in otherwise sound election results and fostering violence, including death threats against dutiful election workers across Pennsylvania.
To understand the full story in Pennsylvania, it is important to go back to October 2019. During that month, Governor Wolf signed into law Act 77, a historic and comprehensive election reform bill that sailed through the General Assembly with strong bipartisan support. In addition to enhancing security measures, Act 77 established “no-excuse” absentee voting—better known as mail-in voting—for all voters in Pennsylvania.
In the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic during the 2020 general election, this new law proved to be particularly prescient; Pennsylvania’s record setting 71 percent turnout was made possible only through mail-in voting, which accounted for approximately 38 percent of votes cast. Mail-in voting enabled over 2.6 million Pennsylvanians to safely and securely cast their ballot.
While mail-in voting increased turnout across Pennsylvania, it also created predictable and preventable concerns foreseen by Democratic and Republican officials alike. In the lead up to Election Day, Governor Wolf, the Secretary of State and a bipartisan group of county officials from across Pennsylvania called on the General Assembly to pass a bill that would have permitted election workers to “pre-canvas” mail-in ballots before Election Day. Pre-canvassing involves preparing mail-in ballots for tabulation, such as extracting a ballot from its envelope and flattening it to make it easier to feed into the counting machines once tabulation begins.
In 2020, Pennsylvania was one of only four states that prohibited the pre-canvassing of mail-in ballots before Election Day. Some states, including Iowa, Arizona and Florida, permitted pre-canvassing and actually began counting votes before Election Day, with the tallies remaining secret and secure until polls closed on Election Day. Pre-canvassing policies allowed around three dozen states, many of which also relied heavily on mail-in voting, to be called on election night, including other large battleground states like Ohio and Texas.
Knowing that it would take days for Pennsylvania to count mail-in ballots without pre-canvassing, President Trump spent weeks incorrectly asserting that the winner must be declared on Election Day, and that any subsequent election results would be the product of fraud.
Unfortunately, the Republican-led General Assembly in Pennsylvania ensured that the former President could continue spreading this baseless conspiracy theory by refusing to pass meaningful legislation allowing pre-canvassing before Election Day. Instead, they passed legislation filled with poison pills that would have made it more difficult to vote, such as prohibiting the use of drop boxes, even with increased security measures. Republican legislators in Pennsylvania ensured that the former President got what he wanted—an opportunity to falsely claim millions of votes, and the election itself, as illegitimate.
To be clear, Pennsylvanians should be proud that its election was administered safely and securely by hundreds of election officials and selfless volunteers across the Commonwealth. In fact, several judges have confirmed in post-election litigation that the former President’s claims of fraud were simply unfounded. But we can still learn from the Pennsylvania election and apply these lessons across our Nation.
Based on Pennsylvania’s substantial success increasing voter turnout through mail-in voting, it is time for Congress to expand no-excuse mail-in and early voting across the entire country. Even without a global pandemic, barriers to voting in person on Election Day are often too great and affect the voting ability of many citizens, including low-income individuals and people with disabilities. Finding and funding childcare, a ride to the polls or time off of work can be insurmountable hurdles for millions of Americans. While early and mail-in voting are not panaceas for these issues, we have already seen that these measures allow for greater access to voting and increased voter satisfaction, especially among those for whom in-person voting on Election Day is more difficult.
Furthermore, Congress must take steps to strengthen faith in elections, including requiring states to implement pre-canvassing procedures before Election Day and providing funding to facilitate that process. In fact, my colleagues and I—like many officials in Pennsylvania—foresaw many of the concerns regarding the lack of pre-canvassing. This prompted us to introduce the Natural Disaster & Emergency Ballot Act, led by Senators Klobuchar and Wyden, which would have required officials to begin pre-canvassing 14 days before Election Day. Those who seek to undermine our Nation’s values will continue to chase opportunities to spread lies, but a streamlined counting process will limit the window during which their baseless conspiracy theories can germinate.
The 2020 General Election was a success despite two challenges: the deadly coronavirus and the corrupt acts of those assaulting voting rights and attempting to subvert the election for their own political gain.
Through Pennsylvania, Congress can take lessons to learn both what went well and what we could do better for the future. Congress must utilize its Constitutionally-bestowed powers to enact meaningful reform while curbing policies driven by ill intentions. I look forward to working with my colleagues on legislation to move our Nation closer to its highest ideals.
Bob Casey is a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.