Election issues take precedence in Dept. of State budget hearing

Election issues take precedence in Dept. of State budget hearing

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Though the bulk of state government hearings are usually intended to focus on the proposed finances of state departments for Fiscal Year 2017-18, it appeared that lawmakers in the state House of Representatives’ and Senate’s Appropriations committees had election integrity and security on their minds when questioning officials from the Pennsylvania Department of State.

“The president has alleged that there has been massive voter fraud in the last election. Was there any fraud that you know of in Pennsylvania?” asked Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Philadelphia, in the House committee hearing on Feb. 22.

“To the best of my knowledge – this is not wishful thinking, this is talking with the counties, media reports, the federal entities that looked at our elections – and the answer is no,” stated Cortes.

Other lawmakers posed questions regarding voters casting more than one ballot and non-citizens voting in elections, forcing Cortes to defend his agency’s oversight of the elections throughout both of his appearances, first in the House on Tuesday afternoon, and then in the Senate on Wednesday morning.

“I’m not sitting here to unequivocally say ‘There’s no type of issues or problems or fraud in Pennsylvania;’ It’s a massive state but certainly nothing happened,” Cortes continued.

The secretary also testified to the success of online voter registration, which was implemented in Pennsylvania in 2016 to save money and make registration more efficient, and the state’s participation in the Electronic Registration Information Center collaboration, a database of voter information shared between 22 states that helps clean up voter rolls.

More than 900,000 Pennsylvania residents utilized the online voter registration system leading up to the 2016 General Election, which saw the largest voter turnout in Pennsylvania history: 6.5 million of 8.5 million registered voters cast a ballot.

Lawmakers also discussed different proposals to update the delivery of elections to Pennsylvania voters, including moving towards no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting, and doing more to clean up voter registration rolls.

Any changes to election processes would need to be made to the state Election Code, which would require legislative approval. Lawmakers plan take a closer look at the proposals in a Senate hearing later this spring, they said.

With regard to finances, Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal asks for less money for the Department of State in the coming fiscal year compared to the current year.

Wolf is requesting $88,022,000 from the General Fund for FY2017-18, down from $88,977,000 in FY2016-17, with proposed minor cuts to the department’s general operations and decreased costs for the publication of information related to constitutional amendments, among others.

Certain programs and duties of the department will require small increases, though, like the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, which needs more money to modernize operations.

In the interest of further reducing appropriations, lawmakers also questioned Cortes about the costs associated with special elections and campaign finance reports.

Special elections in 2016 cost taxpayers almost $1 million in addition to normal election costs, and only two months into 2017, nearly $400,000 has been expended on the elections for unintended vacancies, Cortes said.

These costs, which are paid by the counties up-front and reimbursed by the state, could be avoided by waiting until the next general or primary election to fill any vacancies, Cortes said.

Encouraging or requiring candidates and political action committees to file campaign finance reports electronically could also save money, as well as publishing information related to constitutional amendments on online sites rather than in print newspapers, Cortes said.

The department currently utilizes a third party to scan submitted reports and make them search-accessible, costing the state thousands of dollars each year, while publishing information about constitutional amendments cost $2.7 million in FY2016-17 and is estimated to cost $1.5 million for next fiscal year.

Those costs could be driven down by advertising on online sites, though citizens’ access to the Internet must first be considered, Cortes said.

As for future costs, lawmakers will need to take a look at upgrading outdated voting machines across the Commonwealth, Cortes said.

Aside from election-related issues, lawmakers also questioned Cortes about a few concerns and ideas related to the department’s oversight of professional licensure programs, including lengthy wait times for professional licensure complaints to be investigated and closed.

It is estimated that in FY2017-18, it will take on average 410 days to investigate and close a complaint, up from 282 days in FY2015-16. If trends continue, the department expects that timeframe to increase to 450 days by FY2021-22 due to an increase in the number of complaints received by the department.

One of the department’s main objectives next fiscal year is to reduce the wait time and increase the efficiency in prosecutions through the use of new technology. It also hopes to reduce the processing time of professional licensure applications from 16 days to 10 days, according to the proposed state budget.

Rep. Jamie Santora, R-Delaware, also posed the cost-saving idea of renewing professional licenses every four years rather than every two.