Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Since the start of the year, Republicans who control the state Legislature have fallen back on a now familiar talking point to bolster their far-reaching efforts to rewrite state election law — it’ll increase voter’s trust in election results.
A bill now before the state House would allow for early voting, restrict how voters can return mail-in ballots, and modernize large swathes of the state’s 1937 election law.
Among those provisions is also an expansion of when voters must show identification, which Republicans have frequently laid out as a top priority for any election bill to receive the majority’s approval.
“There are things we do in our election program that are really just to give greater confidence to the electorate,” state Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, said at a September committee meeting on the proposal.
A stricter voter ID law, Schemel said, was one of those things that could be done to build trust.
But at least three studies indicate that voter ID laws, in fact, do not have any influence on how much voters trust election results.
Voters often support such laws, regardless of their party, and believe that such a law combats voter fraud and makes elections more fair, a 2016 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on voter ID and public opinion pointed out.
But voter ID laws can come in varying forms, with varying degrees of strictnesses, and voters often do not know what their own state’s law requires.
As such, the study concluded that “attitudes about voter fraud, as the data presented here suggest, have deeper ideological or political roots, which remain unaffected by a state’s election law regime.”
The study’s co-author MIT political scientist Charles Stewart, told the Capital-Star that there are only two ways to make people trust election outcomes more.
“This is the prescription: Make sure they have a good experience when they vote, and make sure their candidate wins,” Stewart said. “Beyond that, there is nothing you can do.”
Trust in elections, Stewart added, is highly politicized. Voters get signals from those they find politically persuasive on whether they should trust government outcomes.
Former President Donald Trump’s efforts to delegitimize his 2020 loss with baseless claims of voter fraud — often repeated or buttressed by lower-ranking Republicans, including in Pennsylvania — showed this clearly.
But Stewart noted that the seeds of 2020 can be traced to 2016, when Trump was already raising the spectre of fraud on his way to his eventual upset victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
As such, when Trump won, Republicans did not have as big a boost in electoral faith as one would expect when their candidate won, he said.
So after 2016, “Republicans were just grumpy.” But now with Trump’s loss, Stewart said, they are angry.
This anger can be seen in the national push by GOP-controlled state legislatures to change voting laws. Whether on the campaign trail for governor in 2022 or in the halls of the legislature, Republicans have often cited election reform as one of the top issues they hear about from constituents.
Polling bears that out. A June Franklin and Marshall College poll found that 3 in 5 Republican voters supported the wholesale repeal of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania.
The House Republican election bill doesn’t go that far. While it increases security measures for mail-in ballots and reduces voters’ options to return them, the bill will keep Act 77, the 2019 law authorizing universal mail-in ballots access, in place.
Regardless of the GOP’s motive, Democrats and voting rights supporters should engage with the legislative process, University of Kentucky law professor Joshua A. Douglas argued.
Despite opposing voter ID laws, Douglas was consulted in an early 2020 legislative push by the Republican-controlled Kentucky Legislature to strengthen ID requirements.
Writing about the experience in an upcoming law review article, Douglas said he participated because the political reality of GOP control made a voter ID law inevitable.
Some GOP politicians truly believed that voter ID laws would make voting better. Others just wanted a political win, Douglas told the Capital-Star.
Regardless, he hoped that the state could, with a deliberative legislative process, make a law that harmed as few people as possible.
“If you work with those who are supporting a photo ID requirement to make the law as mild as possible, you can use it as a carrot and stick to get increased voting opportunity,” Douglas said.
The Republican-authored bill currently before the Pennsylvania House does address some much requested election law changes. It would give counties a maximum of five days before election day to process and count mail-in ballots. The bill also would allow for six days of early voting in Pennsylvania starting in 2025.
But the bill also includes a voter ID provision, albeit one that election experts have described as mild.
Under current state law, voters must provide their driver’s license number or Social Security number to register to vote, and must show an ID the first time they vote at a new polling place.
The GOP bill forces voters to show an ID every time they vote. But it would give every voter access to a scannable voter registration card that could function as an ID, and allow voters without an ID to sign an affidavit to vote.
A handful of Republicans even voted against the first version of the House Republican election bill in June arguing it was too lenient, one specifically citing the affidavit provision. Still, it passed the General Assembly and was vetoed by Wolf.
Kadida Kenner, executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a nonprofit modeled on Stacey Abrams’ voter turnout efforts in Georgia, told the Capital-Star that she did see a need to change state election law.
She thought voters needed time to fix an error on their mail-in ballot, and expressed a desire for automatic voter registration.
But when it comes to voter ID, she was not willing to concede any ground to proposals that would “put an additional barrier in front of a single voter who has been voting since F.D.R.”
“We have voter ID laws on the books. There’s been no proof of any outrageous types of fraud that’s occurred to this,” Kenner said. “We don’t need to change our position.”
That’s a harder line than even Georgia’s Abrams took earlier this year, when she said that specifics of an expanded voter ID requirements matter. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also told the Philadelphia Inquirer he could support a bill with some stricter ID requirements over the summer, but then backtracked.
Watching these seeming political shifts hasn’t changed Kenner’s mind, though.
Republicans “have a mistrust in our election system,” Kenner said, but she has “a distrust in their ability to pass something that will make sense and eliminate barriers in front of folks.”
For his part, House Republican election guru Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, has insisted that the bill would increase voter trust, citing voter ID law’s high support in opinion polls.
As for election misinformation, he and other Republicans have shrugged.
“I can’t help people believe everything on the internet. There are a lot of bad accusations out there,” Grove, the chairperson of the House State Government Committee, told the Capital-Star this spring. “We did our due diligence to try to address them when members had questions.”
A final vote on the House’s election bill is expected next week. It then heads to the Senate.
Senate State Government Committee Chairperson Dave Argall, R-Schulykill, told the Capital-Star in a text message that he has not yet reviewed the legislation.
“Representative Grove and I share the same goals,” Argall added.
The Senate has presented its own slimmed down, bipartisan election bill that would give counties three days of mail-in ballot pre-canvassing, and would move back the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot, among other changes.
Still, if the bill reaches Wolf desk again, it may be vetoed.
Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said in an email that the bill “creates unacceptable – and in some cases unconstitutional – barriers to voting in Pennsylvania and rolls back many of the bipartisan improvements made in Act 77 of 2019.”
Wolf and House Democrats have instead suggested the chamber take up a separate omnibus election proposal from House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.
Her proposal suggests giving counties up to 21 days to pre-canvass mail-in ballots, and two weeks of early voting. Rementer said Wolf supports the proposal.
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