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Lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House resoundingly rejected a package of election reforms on Thursday, including a voter ID requirement added earlier this week to a bill that would have moved the presidential primary to mid-March.
But a clean bill — free of amendments — to move the primary to April 2 passed the House along party lines. Although the 26-177 vote killed the bill to move the primary to March 19, which the state Senate passed last month, it doesn’t end the legislative push for an earlier primary.
As it stand now, Pennsylvania’s April 23 presidential primary conflicts with Passover, and happens relatively late in primary season.
With a 102-100 vote along party lines on Thursday, the House sent the measure to move the primary to April 2 to the state Senate.
By rejecting the Senate bill, however, the House has prolonged an already urgent process to settle the primary election date with enough time for county election officials to prepare.
The failed Senate bill drew unanimous opposition from Republicans, even though an amendment to include the voter ID requirement, filed by state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie (R-Dauphin) passed on Wednesday with bipartisan support.
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In debate on the House floor Thursday morning, Republican lawmakers objected to another amendment passed around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday in an Appropriations Committee meeting that would have added a provision to automatically enroll voters who submit a mail-in ballot to a permanent vote-by-mail list to receive mail ballots for every election.
“This is an outright attack on election integrity,” Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland) said, suggesting that the measure could lead to ballots being issued to dead people that officials would not be able to account for.
The late-night vote drew comparisons to the infamous 2 a.m. vote by Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2005 to give themselves hefty pay increases.
Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said both the 2005 pay raise vote and this week’s late-night sessions in the Legislature tracked with advice his mother had given him as a young man.
“Nothing good comes after midnight. And this chamber should not cast legislative votes as representatives of the people who predominantly are in bed by then,” Benninghoff said.
As a result, House rules now prohibit floor votes after 11 p.m. unless a supermajority votes to suspend the rules.
Questioning Appropriations Committee Chairperson Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), Benninghoff noted that copies of the amendment were not available to lawmakers other than members of the committee until Thursday morning.
“Many of us would like to be able to call our local elections office and ask their input and their questions and our county commissioners, those people who have to implement these types of changes,” Benninghoff said.
Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) told reporters after the vote that the bill’s failure shows how far apart Republicans and Democrats are on election reforms.
Republicans put forth the voter ID proposal with Democratic support in exchange for measures including more time for county elections workers to pre-canvass mail-in ballots. Delays in completing mail-ballot counts have been attributed to a restriction on removing them from envelopes before election day and county officials have asked for more time.
“You need to trade off with any election code. They just couldn’t get their head around what that trade off would look like,” Bradford said.
The bill was also unpopular among Democrats, with only 26 of the caucus’ 102 members voting for it.
Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said in a news conference after the session that the Senate bill’s failure is symptomatic of a lack of preparedness by Democrats, who he accused of running the chamber in a way to cut off debate and block minority input.
“This leads to bad results and worse legislation. And the Democrats own this chaos,” Cutler said.
Cutler said the majority’s failures were also evident in the ongoing budget stalemate. More than $1 billion in funding for programs including Democratic priorities has been bottled up because the General Assembly has not passed legislation to authorize the spending.
The House on Wednesday passed a bill to release about $640 million to pay for tuition discounts for Pennsylvania students at the University of Pittsburgh, and Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities.
On Thursday, it amended a fiscal code bill to include money for the state’s Whole Home Repair program to assist low-income homeowners with maintenance and to provide additional funding for adult behavioral health care.
Rep. Joseph D’Orsie (R-York) in a statement criticized Democrats for using parliamentary tactics to “snuff out” debate on the code bill before a vote around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Last night was especially brazen given the importance of the bills in question and the fact that we are, as of Thursday, 97 days past due on a budget that works for Pennsylvanians,” D’Orsie said.
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