Lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly have launched hearings to re-examine election law in the wake of the 2020 election.
Even before those hearings even began, Republican legislators announced plans for bills that would roll back changes put in place to make voting easier.
Those include bills that would ban the use of drop boxes which were used to allow voters to deposit mail ballots without using the mail in almost half of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in the 2020 election, a proposal to put in place signature verification, and a proposal that would completely roll back the state’s expansion of mail-in voting.
Democrats also have several proposals, including one that would provide counties more time to prepare ballots for counting.
At the first hearing of a Senate election integrity commission, state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, said that the reviews are necessary because of the “large number of individuals that feel that they’ve lost confidence with the election system.”
Twenty-eight House Republicans signed on as co-sponsors of legislation introduced by state Rep. Michael Puskaric, R-Washington County. State Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette County, and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin County, along with three other Republican co-sponsors, introduced legislation in the Senate to do the same thing.
In a statement announcing the legislation, the Senate sponsors said they were acting in response to moves by Gov. Tom Wolf and former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, and state Supreme Court rulings, that changed the way mail-in voting was conducted – in a way that lawmakers hadn’t envisioned when the expansion was approved with Republican support in 2019.
“By removing the provisions of law that allow for no-excuse mail-in ballots, we can regain some trust in our elections’ integrity,” they said.
‘Their right to vote’
A Wolf spokeswoman said the governor would not support any legislation that would make it harder for people to vote.
“The governor would oppose legislation to make it more difficult for eligible voters to exercise their right to vote or roll back mail-in voting, which people have clearly embraced,” Lyndsay Kensinger said.
Asked about repealing mail-in voting, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, said that House leaders aren’t interested in passing legislation that will just invite a veto from the governor.
“That is not our goal,” he said.
He said that it is “most likely” Wolf would veto any bill that would repeal mail-in voting.
At a House state government committee election hearing on Thursday, state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware County, said that when the House election hearings were announced, she “wasn’t sure of the efficacy” of the review.
However, she said the testimony has reinforced that the state needs to make a change that county officials and voting rights advocates had called for before the 2020 election – to provide counties more time to prepare ballots for counting.
Current law doesn’t allow counties to begin this “pre-canvassing” process until the morning of Election Day, and that late start contributed to the delay in election results.
In states that allow election workers to begin preparing mailed ballots for counting earlier, “there results were in and ours were not,” she said.
Davidson’s comments largely echoed those made by state Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny County, at a Senate election integrity hearing earlier in the week.
Williams said the state’s failure to provide counties time to prepare ballots for counting contributed to the delays in reporting election results that have fueled so much of the controversy.
“This delay resulted in mass disinformation and unsubstantiated allegations of fraud” because the state’s election count took days, Williams said.
Not a ‘partisan thing’
President Joe Biden won in Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes when all the ballots were counted. But former President Donald Trump had been leading in Pennsylvania by 1.3 million votes on Election Night before mail-in ballots were counted. It took days for the mail-in ballots to be counted and Biden didn’t take the lead in Pennsylvania until three days after the election.
Benninghoff said that both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that some changes need to be made. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has backed a number of changes as well.
Legislation based on the county officials’ recommendations has been introduced by state Rep. Michael Driscoll, D-Philadelphia. It calls for moving the voter registration deadline back to 30 days before the election (it was moved to 15 days before the election in the same law that legalized no-excuse mail-in voting. The bill also would give counties more time for pre-canvassing, and eliminate a privacy envelope that voters had to use when mailing in their ballots.
“People want to assume that this some type of partisan maneuver just because we happen to be in the majority,” Benninghoff said,
“It’s misleading to make it into a partisan thing,” he said.
The apparent need to make additional changes to the election law, doesn’t change the fact that the state’s move to no-excuse mail-in voting was a success that contributed to unprecedented voter turnout, said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a coalition of groups lobbying for election reforms.
“Last year was a monumental moment for Pennsylvania, with the state implementing an entirely new voting system amid record turnout during a global pandemic,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes. “Legislators should be proud of the early reforms they enacted. They made a big difference in how our elections were managed.
“Of course, the rollout of any new idea comes with growing pains, so there are things the administration and General Assembly need to do to improve the vote-by-mail system,” he said.
In addition to providing more time for pre-canvassing, his group is also calling for the state to pass legislation setting clear guidelines for counties to use to notify voters if there are errors on mailed ballots, such as a missing signature, that would result in the ballot going uncounted.