Preparations underway in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to count mail-in ballots

GLOUCESTER TWP., New Jersey (WPVI) -- Less than a month before Election Day, mail-in ballots are pouring into county offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and county officials are preparing the influx of early ballots as best they can.

At the Camden County Election Center in Gloucester Township, ballots are kept under lock and key until its time to count them. But first, they are opened and sorted - a process that's already started.

Mail-in ballots zip through a new machine, which opens the envelopes and sorts them by municipality. Once a staff member has verified the signature, election officials say they're kept under lock and key until it's time to count them.

"It has a high-speed camera that can read the bar code, and inserts that into the computer so you can go online and track your ballot and know that we have received it here at the board of elections," said Sarah Booker, Republican administrator for the Camden County Board of Elections.

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Because New Jersey's election will be primary mail-in, officials say the new machine and the extra preparation time are crucial.

"In a normal election year is about 40,000 ballots received," said Booker. "We have already received 40,000 ballots in the past two weeks. Our amount of ballots that we are bringing in is so much higher. We've hired extra staff."

In New Jersey, officials can start counting ballots ten days before the election, so they say it's likely they'll know the results late on November 3.

County officials estimate the sorting machine cost between $250,000 to $300,000, and was paid for by the Camden County Freeholder Board using CARES act funding.

In Pennsylvania, early voting is also underway. Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar cast her ballot Friday in Bucks County, which also purchased a new mail sorter to speed things up.

But unlike New Jersey, current Pennsylvania law does not allow for the preparation and scanning of ballots before Election Day - a process called pre-canvassing.

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"I've been shouting from the tops of the roof. We need pre-canvassing in Pennsylvania," said Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo.

House Bill 2626, if made law, would allow counties to start opening and preparing ballots for counting the Saturday before the election. The Republican-sponsored bill also contained restrictions on ballot drop boxes, and several other election policies opposed by Democrats. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he will veto the bill as it stands. In a statement to Action News on Friday, a spokesperson for Gov. Wolf said:

"The governor and his staff have had conversations with legislative leadership. The governor fully supports additional time for pre-canvassing and encourages the General Assembly to send him a clean bill that accomplishes this."

"It's not done," said Pennsylvania Republican Caucus spokesperson Jason Gottesman. "It's over in the senate and we continue to be open to discussions about how that bill can be made better and we'd be open to looking at it - if it came back from the Senate with amendments."

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania says without pre-canvassing, it could be several days before all the ballots are counted, and asks voters for patience.

"The results could shift as we continue to count those ballots and I want to emphasize that that does not mean that if those numbers continue to change post-election day that there's anything wrong with the results," said Executive Director Lisa Schaefer.
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