Centre County is expected to receive $540,987.73 from unprecedented new state funding that provides money to counties for the costs of running elections. But the funds come with some new requirements.
The county Board of Commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to apply for the Elections Integrity Grant Program authorized by Act 88, which was approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last month. It makes available a total of $45 million to counties that apply, with funding provided based on the number of registered voters in the county.
First year funding will cover the 2022 general election and 2023 primary election. Centre County budgets about $1.2 million annually for elections.
“I think this really will allow us to offset significant costs and be able to run our elections and get some help from the state,” Commissioner Michael Pipe said. “Hopefully the legislature would consider the fact that this is a fraction of the amount we spend on our elections and maybe increase this. And I think that’s fair, they want to see it’s going to good use. So hopefully if the money’s spent well over the next few years they increase this as we go forward.”
Among the most significant requirements tied to the funding, county election offices will need to begin pre-canvassing — the process of opening and preparing mail-in and absentee ballots — at 7 a.m. on Election Day and continue “without interruption,” until completed. Then once polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, they will be required to count all mail-in and absentee ballots received, again “without interruption,” until the count is complete.
The law does not allow counties to begin pre-canvassing before Election Day, something election officials statewide had been urging since 2020, when Pennsylvania’s first general election with no-excuse mail-in voting saw counting of ballots take days.
Beth Lechman, director of elections and voter registration, said that to ease the continuous pre-canvassing and counting requirements, Centre County would close its mail-in ballot drop boxes on Monday before the election.
“As long as we are willing to put a plan in place that allows us to close our drop boxes on Monday and allow those ballots to be here on Monday and get those organized to start canvassing, I think there will be a minimal amount that will come in on election day that we’ll have to canvas at 8 p.m.,” Lechman said.
While clarification is still to come, the grant funding must be used for specific purposes that Lechman expects to cover a wide variety of costs related to voter registration, staffing, Election Day operations, equipment security and reporting.
One position Lechman is hopeful will be covered by the funding is a vote-by-mail coordinator, which the county is currently looking to hire.
Pipe said that it is expected $1 to $2 out of every $5 from the funding will go to pay for poll workers.
“We will probably be moving around the schedule for the temporary people we use at the vote by mail center, being that we probably won’t have Wednesday afternoon counting,” Lechman said. “It’s going to be Tuesday evening, late into the night possibly. But we hopefully will be able to increase those numbers [of workers] and get that done in a timely fashion.”
While offering guaranteed state money for elections to counties, Act 88 also bans private funding, a priority for Republicans in the state legislature since 2020, when 23 counties received $16.5 million in grants from Mark Zuckerberg’s nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Centre County was among them, receiving $863,828.50 for election expenditures.
With the new state funding, counties receiving money also will be required to meet additional reporting requirements. Those include posting on their websites by 12:01 a.m. after the election an unofficial number of mail and absentee ballots received, and submitting to the Secretary of State for posting on the Department of State website the “outcome any post-election audit required under the election code.”
“We’re not exactly sure what those audits will be yet,” Lechman said. “I do anticipate them being risk-limiting audits though.”
All counties must submit a one-time certification to the Department of State no later than 75 days after the effective date of Act 88, which is Sept. 24. Those receiving election integrity grants also must submit an annual report to the Department of Community and Economic Development and legislative leaders no later than 90 days after each election.
“We can handle those additional requirements and it is nice to have at least a portion of the election costs reimbursed by the state,” Commissioner Michael Pipe said.