Pa. Republicans eyeing tighter voter ID requirements to meet wall of Wolf veto

By: - April 16, 2021 7:19 am

Pa. State Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Lycoming, speaks at a House State Government Committee hearing in January 2021. (Pa. House photo)

As then-President Donald Trump used baseless claims of election fraud to try to  unsuccessfully hold onto the presidency, Pennsylvania’s majority Republican Legislature amplified those claims, and promised a string of hearings, in preparation to change state voting law.

They aren’t alone. 

Since courts and Congress affirmed Trump’s loss, GOP-controlled states across the country are tightening voting laws in response to the former president’s loss, building off Trump’s fact-free questioning of the 2020 election’s legitimacy.

But unlike in many of those states, and despite support in the General Assembly for restrictive measures, Republicans aren’t going to get everything they want in Pennsylvania.

This difference between what Republicans want, and what Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf might eventually sign, will animate the next three months of negotiations, as Pennsylvania officials charged with cleaning up state election law work to find common ground in the shadow of Trump’s false claims.

Among the most sought after GOP policies facing a likely gubernatorial veto is the expansion of who has to show photo ID to vote.

While expanding ID requirements for voters at the polls may be popular with the GOP, previous supporters of those laws, such as state Sen. David Argall, R-Schulykill, acknowledged that “there is no way in hell this governor will sign it.”

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Under federal law, any voter who has registered to vote by mail must show ID to vote in their first federal election — any election in an even-numbered year. Otherwise, states are free to set higher standards.

Usually, these so-called voter ID laws require citizens to always provide some form of identification before they vote, regardless of whether it’s their first time voting or not. 

A total of 36 states across the country have laws above the federal minimum, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though exact details — such as the types of ID allowed — vary from state to state.

Black and Brown people are less likely to have an up-to-date photo ID, research has found, but studies have not proven such laws depress turnout, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Lab, which tracks election research. Any suppression of their votes would benefit Republicans, as minority voters disproportionately vote Democratic.

Expanding these laws are high on the priority list for the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that helps elect Republican state legislative majorities.

The committee — whose leadership team includes Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre — released a report on voting laws earlier this month. 

It called for states to adopt policies to make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat,” such as allowing early voting, strengthening signature verification for absentee ballots, and expanding ID requirements to vote. 

A spokesperson for Wolf confirmed that the latter would be vetoed if it reaches his desk.

“In the absence of any credible evidence of widespread voter fraud, voter ID proposals are an effort to disenfranchise voters, plain and simple,” administration spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email. “The governor will not allow bogus claims of election fraud to be used as a pretext for imposing additional burdens on the right to vote.”

Under existing law, Pennsylvanians are now only required to show ID when voting at a polling place for the first time after they first register to vote or change their address.

But in the early 2010’s, the state tried to tighten that statute by requiring a valid photo ID that was seen as one of the strictest such laws in the country.

Former GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai also famously proclaimed in 2012 that the new law would help their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, win the state, but the law was rendered unenforceable in court.

Despite Wolf’s presence and the court precedent, Republicans are poised to push the policy again as part of much needed maintenance to the state’s election code.

On Thursday, the House State Government Committee finished a string of 10 public hearings on state voting law in preparation to offer up a bill editing state election law in June or July. 

Lawmakers in both parties agree that counties need to have time to open and process mail-in ballots before Election Day, as well as tweak deadlines to apply for mail-in ballots.

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Such a change likely would be included in any future bill. But looking at the direction of her colleagues’ questioning, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Rep. Margo Davidson, of Delaware County, sees expanding voter ID requirements as a potential outcome.

“Republicans have indicated their support for such a proposal and they passed it in the past,” Davidson said. “That’s something that Democrats would not be supporting.” 

In fact, Rep. Jeff Wheeland, a Lycoming County Republican who sits on the panel, is sponsoring the new proposal, which he argued will pass constitutional muster.

His bill broadens what sorts of identification someone can use to vote. They must present some form of photo identification — including a driver’s licenses, hospital ID, or student ID — to vote. 

If they do not have such an ID, they can present two forms without a photo, or sign an affidavit and vote by a provisional ballot. Such ballots can be challenged by either party before they are counted in a county board of elections meeting in the days after the election.

Wheeland echoed the RSLC’s line that he wanted to make it “easier to vote and hard to cheat,” and argued his bill would increase faith in the state’s elections. It already has the support of almost two in five House Republicans.

“I believe it is incumbent upon the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to give surety to all voters,” he said.

Despite these justification, research hasn’t shown any connection between improved voter trust and voter ID laws. 

Instead, a 2016 Stanford Law Review article found that citizens’ attitudes about voter fraud aren’t connected to the precise election laws in place in any given state. In fact, the average voter often doesn’t know the ID requirements to vote in their state, the study noted.

“Attitudes about voter fraud … have deeper ideological or political roots, which remain unaffected by a state’s election law regime,” the study concluded.

It’s also not at all certain that Wheeland’s new proposal will withstand a court challenge.

Vic Walczak, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, was part of the 2012 court battle over Pennsylvania’s earlier attempt to institute ID requirements. He pointed out that the state had to admit in court that it could find zero cases of fraud that the law would have prevented. 

By contrast, the ACLU brought in witness after witness who testified that their ability to vote would be threatened by the proposal.

“There’s insufficient justification, in the absence of a problem, to erect an additional barrier to voting,” Walczak said. “The overall dynamics haven’t changed since 2012.”

In fact, the only change he noted was former president Trump and Republicans’ questioning of the election result to feed doubt in election processes and results.

Still, amid heightened Republicans concerns of voter fraud, amped up by Trump’s baseless claims, Wheeland’s pitch for voter ID to his colleagues is easy. 

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According to public polling, such laws are broadly popular. A 2016 Gallup poll, for instance, found that 80 percent of Americans support mandating voters show photo identification before voting.

“I would probably be ill advised,” to vote for any broad election code changes that didn’t increase ID requirements, Wheeland told the Capital-Star.

Whether the General Assembly will aim for a big or small bill is still unclear. As partisanship has increased, the chamber has leaned on passing large omnibus measures to achieve compromises that have something for everyone.

That was how the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed Act 77 in 2019, which allowed mail-in ballots, gave counties money for new voting machines, and axed straight-ticket voting. 

Argall, who controls the Senate committee that manages election law, told the Capital-Star that he was aiming to tackle election reform piecemeal, with a series of separate, targeted bills.

Such an approach would allow lawmakers to tackle small but pressing problems sparked by Act 77, where there is bipartisan agreement, That includes finally giving counties time to process mail-in ballots before Election Day, without getting bogged down in politically charged topics such as voter ID.

“I think there is a genuine desire to move ahead on a bipartisan basis,” Argall told the Capital-Star. “We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be easy.”

It won’t be. Democrats’ are already alarmed about what’s in store for the next few months , given not on Wheeland’s voter ID proposal but also multiple proposals sitting in the House to wholesale eliminate mail-in ballots. 

Looking back at the 42 hours of House hearings over the past four months, Davidson found it hard not to see it all as pretext for voter suppression.

“Confidence about the election has been destroyed by the very people who lament its destruction,” Davidson said Thursday at the close of the State Government Committee’s final hearing.

The House panel’s chairman, Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, has largely kept mum on his policy preferences since the hearings started. He’s previously held up Florida’s election law as a good standard. The Sunshine State allows for mail-in voting, early voting, but also requires a photo ID to vote.

Grove also signed on to Wheeland’s proposal. As for its legality, Grove thought that providing Pennsylvanians a free ID could negate the court’s previous rulings.

“We passed a law to allow free IDs for homeless individuals, the Department of Transportation is doing that,” Grove said. “So one could easily conclude that it shouldn’t be too much of a lift to do it for voter ID.” 

And these sorts of measures may be the only stick to get rank-and-file House Republicans on board with the small but necessary maintenance to issues in Act 77 revealed over the past year.

Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, told the Capital-Star he’d likely be a no on a “clean bill,” or a bill with no additional provisions, to allow pre-canvassing.

“There’s more to this than just the pre-canvassing aspect of it,” Heffley said. 

It might allow for quicker results, “but at the end of the day you have about half the population which doesn’t have confidence in the election,” Heffley, who signed the Dec. 4 letter asking for Congress to dispute Pennsylvania’s election results, said. “I don’t know if that’s justified or not, however, what do we need to do to restore that confidence?”

To accomplish that, he testified in favor expanding ID requirements testimony before the State Government committee during a meeting on Thursday.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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