Legal Hotline: Access to Election Records

  • Nov 16, 2017

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q: A local election resulted in a tie and there will be a recount. We would like one of our journalists to attend the recount and inspect the returns and ballots. What does the Election Code say about public access to the returns, ballots and vote counting proceedings?

A: The Election Code and its corresponding regulations contain a number of provisions that govern public access to election records and proceedings. Returns and ballots are public records, and the counting process must take place in public.

First, 25 P.S. § 3153 requires the county board of elections to arrange for the computation of the votes from each primary and election at its office or some other convenient public place at the county seat. At least one week prior to the computation of votes, the county board of elections must publish notice by newspaper publication, in accordance with 25 P.S. §2606 (Publication of Notices), of the time and place at which the board will hold its sessions for the computation of votes. Copies of the advertisement must be posted in the board's office until the computation is completed. Further, section 3154 requires the county election board to “publicly commence the computation and canvassing of the returns” at a public place in accordance with section 3153.

Moreover, returns and ballots are public records open to inspection and copying under sections 3152 and 2968 of the Election Code, respectively.  Section 3152 states:

“The general returns from the various districts which have been returned unsealed shall be open to public inspection at the office of the county board as soon as they are received from the judges of election.”

And further, section 2968 states:

“The county board of elections shall have on file in its office, on and after the Thursday preceding each primary and election, open to public inspection, forms of the ballots and ballot labels, with the names and such statements and notations as may be required by the provisions of this act, printed thereon, which shall be used in each election district within the county.”

With regard to other county election records, section 1207 of the Election Code makes the records of a county registration commission and district registers generally open, with specific public access provisions for the following records:

  • Street lists
  • Official voter registration applications
  • Petitions and appeals
  • Witness lists
  • Accounts and contracts
  • Reports

Section 1207 allows for public inspection during ordinary business hours, subject to the efficient operation of a commission. The law also states that public inspection shall be in the presence of a commissioner or other authorized party, and shall be subject to proper regulation for safekeeping. Section 1207 also requires the county election commission to provide a photocopy of the records or computer-generated data, at cost, upon request. The Election Code does not allow the records to be used for commercial or improper purposes, and many election officials require requesters to affirm that their intended use is not commercial or improper, and newsgathering is neither.

It is also worth noting that 25 P.S. § 2622 states that records of the Secretary of the Commonwealth and all returns, nomination petitions, certificates and papers, other petitions, accounts, contracts, reports and other documents and records are open to public inspection. The law requires that these records be available for inspection and copying by any qualified elector during ordinary business hours, at any time when they are not being used as part of official business. The statute also provides that public inspection shall only be in the presence of the Secretary of the Commonwealth or a designee, and shall be subject to regulation for safekeeping.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Please contact the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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