“Century-old law let voters file baseless recount petitions and delay Pa.’s election certification; Election experts and advocates say Legislature should update 1927 statute that was written for an era of machine politics.”


Good-government advocates and voting experts say Pennsylvania should change a recount law that was weaponized by activists and delayed the state’s certification by several weeks.

A Votebeat and Spotlight PA review of historical legislative records and news articles found that the 1927 provision has not been substantially updated in the near-century since its passage, and was designed to combat a type of fraud now easily detected by modern improvements to election administration.

The recount petition fee, for example, has never been updated from the $50 amount set in 1927. Adjusted for inflation, the modern equivalent is $860. 

By design, the authors of the law specifically didn’t require citizens submitting recount petitions to include proof of fraud. That means almost none of the petitions submitted this year offered actual evidence of malfeasance. 

“Having an outlet for a citizen who sees something is important,” Commissioner Josh Maxwell, chair of the Chester County elections board, said. Instead, “there was no fraudulent behavior and [the statute is] being abused and used possibly to delay the certification of elections.”

Roughly 150 petitions were filed across the state in November, most targeting the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. The petitions held up certification in several counties as judges considered them and, in the counties where recounts moved forward, election administrators fed the ballots back through high-speed scanners. None of the outcomes were altered by the recounts, which found almost no errors. 

This year, “I think the scope and the motivations [behind the recount petitions] are pretty novel,” said Forrest Lehman, elections director in Lycoming County. He noted that Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein did use the provision in a “scattered” way, relying as well on other parts of Pennsylvania election law. This year, he said, “you had people filing dozens” of petitions.

Adam Bonin is a Philadelphia-based attorney who regularly works with Democratic candidates and said he has used the statute in local races, such as school board or township supervisor races, when the margin is close and a recount may be justified.

The low fee of $50, originally “meant to be cost-prohibitive,” has now made it too easy to file such requests due to inflation, Bonin suggested, describing the amount as now equivalent to “a rounding error.” 

Lehman and Bonin said the statute should at least be adjusted for inflation.

But Elizabeth Grossman, a senior regulatory counsel at Informing Democracy, a nonprofit focused on the vote-counting process, has been researching the law’s origin and said simply upping the cost may not be the right solution. While cost provisions and evidence standards might lessen the number of petitions, motivated parties who refuse to accept the results will climb whatever barriers are placed before them. Instead, she said, the state should consider whether the 1927 provision is still needed at all. 

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