The Lead

Pa. Senate panel that approved voting bill will get a do-over next week because of improper notice

By: - September 4, 2020 9:46 am

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

(*This story was updated at 2:07 p.m. on 9/4/20, to include comment from Senate Secretary Megan Martin)

The Pennsylvania Senate’s State Government Committee is taking a mulligan on a House-approved voting reform bill opposed by Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Democrats.

The public was not given sufficient notice of the Republican-controlled panel’s 10-minute session held on Thursday afternoon. The move enraged Democrats who said they weren’t given enough time to prepare amendments or study the bill passed by the GOP-controlled House less than 24 hours earlier.

The Senate panel voted 7-4 at the end of the brief meeting to approve the only piece of legislation on its agenda: a bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, that advances the deadline for voters to request a mail-in ballot and bans ballot drop boxes ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Senate Secretary Megan Martin confirmed Friday that the panel will meet Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after the Labor Day holiday. The Senate is in session for two days next week: Tuesday and Wednesday, according to its official home page.

The Capital-Star was the first to report Thursday about the little-noticed meeting. The 2:30 p.m. meeting was not on the Senate’s public schedule by Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement released by her office, Martin explained that her office “handles public notification of Committee meetings under the Sunshine Act.” She said she learned Thursday that “an administrative error by my office occurred when we Sunshined the Education and State Government Committee meetings for September 3, 2020.  The Committee Chairs acted appropriately and followed all Sunshining steps for which they are responsible.”

Martin said she agreed with Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, that “in an abundance of caution, it was imperative to repeat these meetings to be as transparent as possible and to meet all legal requirements.  Please note, all actions previously taken on the bills considered by these two committees yesterday were voided during session today, September 4, 2020.”

As a result of “this honest mistake, I have reached out to the attorneys for both Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans to schedule a review of what took place, so that we can ensure this does not happen again in the future.  The actions my team takes are in line with precedent that was established long before I arrived at the Senate; however, I am always looking for opportunities to improve our processes,” Martin said in her statement.

*In a statement released late Thursday night, Corman confirmed that the Senate Education and State Government committees “took the required steps to ensure public notification of the meetings. We have since learned that an administrative error by the Secretary’s Office may have resulted in an incomplete notification process when hard copies of the notifications were not delivered to the Capitol newsroom.”

*In an email to fellow Democrats on Thursday evening, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, alerted lawmakers that the Senate had failed to provide proper legal notice of the State Government Committee’s meeting, as well as a meeting of the Senate Education Committee, which also met Thursday.

“In order to clear all this up, [Senate Majority Leader Jake] Corman is doing a do over,” Costa wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Capital-Star.

The Education Committee is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. on Friday, Martin said. Costa’s email notes that the State Government Committee will likely meet Tuesday.

“Once the meeting[s] are complete, there will be a non-voting session, and the bills will move up a day to position them for a likely vote on Wednesday,” Costa wrote, adding that “It also appears that we may not be dealing with the Election Code,” bills because the Senate doesn’t have enough session days scheduled next week to deal with the legislation.

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Chuck Erdman, a spokesman for committee Chairman John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, told the Capital-Star Thursday that the meeting was announced around 7 p.m. on Wednesday evening. Emails from DiSanto’s office show that committee members were notified at 8:21 p.m. the same night.

Wolf said Thursday that he would veto the House bill if it arrives on his desk in its current form. Mail-in ballots start going out to tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters on Sept. 14.

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed to this story. 

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.