Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf faced blowback from his own party two years ago when he negotiated a deal behind closed doors with Republicans to swap the elimination of straight-ticket voting in exchange for legislative approval of mail-in ballots.
At the time, Democrats called ending straight-ticket voting a “betrayal of Democratic constituencies.” But fast- forward through one pandemic and a presidential election, and Wolf’s Democratic colleagues have changed their tune.
“Back then, there were some questions as to whether what we were doing with Act 77 was actually increasing access to the polls. I thought I was,” Wolf said at a Wednesday press conference on voting rights.
State Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, cut him off: “He was right.”
Now, Republicans are attempting to rewrite parts of the state’s mail-in voting law after former President Donald Trump spent months before and after his 2020 election loss baselessly attacking mailed votes as a source of fraud.
Combine Trump’s rhetoric with a number of orders from the state Supreme Court to alter Act 77 to meet the challenges of postal delays and pandemic-driven demand for at-home voting, and some Republicans have even called for a full suspension or repeal of mail-in ballots.
But if bringing mail-in ballots to Pennsylvania exposed a divide between Wolf and Democratic lawmakers, the divide had disappeared, when Wolf, Street, and other Democratic lawmakers said they would oppose any legislation that limits voting rights.
Republicans who control the General Assembly are set to vote on an elections package that could include restrictions this month.
“We have to see through the politicians who spread lies, who refuse to govern in our interest, who refuse to pass laws to make our democracy work,” Wolf said. “All they want to do is silence our voices. It’s wrong to pass laws that take away someone’s freedom to vote, and that’s exactly what these bills do here.”
House and Senate Republicans have said they plan to pass changes to the state election code this month, before the June 30 budget deadline scatters lawmakers away from Harrisburg for summer vacation.
There is bipartisan agreement on some things, mainly giving counties time to count mail-in ballots before Election Day.
But the price tag for Republican support, particularly in the state House, likely includes measures such as expanded ID requirements to vote or signature verification on mail-in ballots.
Such measures, Republicans have argued, will make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” — a line lifted from a national GOP report crafted by a political group that backs state level Republicans elected officials.
Wolf and his legislative allies reiterated that including such proposals in any voting reform package would be a poison pill, and earn Wolf’s veto.
“We don’t care if you put 20 good things in there,” Street told the Capital-Star. “I’m not going to support; we’re not going to allow, anything to suppress the vote,”
This stand will make accomplishing any changes to election law complicated. House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, reiterated his support for voter ID and other proposals Wednesday to the Capital-Star.
“We are working on a tremendous package that addresses a lot of election issues we uncovered in our hearings,” Grove said.
He has also previously stated his preference for passing one bill, at once, forcing the good, bad and ugly for all sides into one neat — or not so neat — bundle.
But Grove’s counterpart on the Senate State Government Committee, Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, has instead said he wants to act on a raft of individual bills that lawmakers pass — and Wolf signs — individually.
That means bills to give counties time to process mail-in ballots, give counties increasing election funding, impose rigid voter ID requirements and authorize a legislative review of the 2020 election could all come up for a vote by themselves, and Wolf would not be bound to accept all or nothing.
But if Pennsylvania wants any changes, Wolf and the Republicans will have to talk. And whether those talks will result in finished legislation is unclear. While Wolf may have compromised in 2019, the battle lines are stark now.
“I will always uphold our democracy,” Wolf said Wednesday. “I am here to get things done for the people of Pennsylvania. But I am also a steward of a grand democratic tradition, and I recognize both.”