With one election barely over, state lawmakers look to make fixes ahead of the next one

By: - December 3, 2020 7:16 am

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, speaks during a House committee vote in September 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

Time’s likely up for Pennsylvania’s Legislature to override the outcome of the 2020 election. But lawmakers have already turned their eyes to changing how Pennsylvanians vote in the future.

On Tuesday, the first day lawmakers elected in November can float legislation, dozens of proposals were sent to colleagues. Among calls for bills allowing falconry on Sundays and approval of LGBTQ non-discrimination rules were a handful of election law changes.

Some proposals, sponsored by Democrats, called for early voting, automatic voter registration or more time for counties to process mail-in ballots. That was an issue that lawmakers were aware of before the election but were unable to solve.

Meanwhile, Republicans offered up bills that would revive voter identification requirements thrown out by a state judge, or would try to gut Pennsylvania’s recently amended election code.

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, called for the repeal of no-excuse mail-in ballots in a memo sent to his colleagues Tuesday.

That expansion of voting rights was approved in fall 2019 in a compromise between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Known as Act 77, it was approved by all but two Republicans. Gregory was among those who voted for it.

The new form of voting was immediately used by millions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And the state Supreme Court extended the deadline for ballots until three days after the election this year due to mail delays.

Gregory acknowledged that his call for repeal was a reversal, but argued in a statement that what he “didn’t vote for is the activist court and secretary of state changing the rules for the election in the weeks and days leading up to Election Day itself.”

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Elizabeth Randol, a lobbyist for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Republicans’ quick turn to restrict access flies in the face of their forward-looking work on Act 77.

“We still give them credit for that,” Randol told the Capital-Star. “I find it disappointing within one election cycle that they somehow reversed entirely their position on it, instead of trying to address some things that were glitches or exposed by the sheer volume of votes.”

That heel turn seems to come from  misinformation and disinformation, Randol said. And much of it originates with President Donald Trump, and his effort to delegitimize his 2020 electoral loss.

As Trump has made baseless claims of fraud in public statements, his attorneys have presented no evidence of it in court. Conservative judges appointed by Trump have written scathing statements dismissing his campaign lawsuits, including in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, everyone from local election officials to Trump’s own administration also have said there is no evidence of fraud.

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, proposed his own legislation to approve a month of early voting, and to give counties two weeks to process mail-in ballots before Election Day.

The former could normally invite some partisan fights, the latter a bipartisan fix that county officials have begged for since July. But neither, Kenyatta said, “will get done if Republicans don’t join Democrats in reality.”

Republicans’ evidence-free claims of fraud, Kenyatta said, have “created a Frankenstein. They are not able to control the monster they created.”

“If they don’t start telling the truth and being honest with their supporters they are going to regret it,” he added.

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Republicans weren’t just looking at 2019 for inspiration for their bills. Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Lycoming, floated a proposal that the state House once again pass a law requiring voters to show identification every time they vote. 

Under current state law, voters must only show ID the first time they vote in person at a new precinct after changing their address.

The state first passed a voter ID law in 2012. The law required voters to show a photo ID with an expiration date to vote. Former House Speaker Mike Turzai bragged that it would allow Republican nominee Mitt Romney to win the state that year.

In 2014, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley ruled that the law was “invalid and unconstitutional on its face,” arguing that the law’s ID requirements were too strict. The judge also cited barriers to acquiring a valid ID.

“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election,” McGinley wrote. “The Voter ID law does not further this goal.”

Wheeland, who said he introduced similar legislation last year, argued his bill would correct the old proposal’s “fatal flaws.”

Among them, Wheeland said voters could use one form of photo ID, whether from the government, a college, or an employer. Otherwise, two forms of non-photo ID, including a firearm permit or utility bill, could be used.

Wheeland said angry constituent calls encouraged him to reintroduce the bill, and said interest among his colleagues was “off the charts.”

“I believe this legislation will be one small step towards giving voters in Pennsylvania surety that their vote that they cast is not going to be nullified,” by fraud, “whether it’s perceived or reality,” Wheeland told the Capital-Star.

Research has found that Black and Latino voters are more likely to not have ID. But it is not clear if passing voter ID laws drives down turnout, according to MIT’s Elections Date Science Lab. 

But despite supporters’ arguments, the lab also cites two studies that found that voter ID laws do not increase confidence in election results, either.

The fate of both Wheeland and Gregory’s proposals is still unwritten. They will be assigned to committee where they will be subject to the whims of yet-to-named committee chairs. \

Chairs in the state legislature are extremely powerful, and have a near- total stranglehold on what bills advance or languish in their committee.

House Republicans already have signaled they plan to take a second look at state election law in 2021, with a potential deadline of the May primary.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, was tapped by House GOP leadership to lead a review of the 2020 election ahead of reforms. 

He has previously said Florida should serve as an example for Pennsylvania going forward. The state does have a voter ID law, but also allows for vote by mail.

Grove did not reply to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if either Gregory or Wheeland’s proposals will make it into the final reform package, which both Democrats and Republicans agree is needed. But off the bat, Wheeland said he didn’t support his colleague’s effort to roll back mail-in ballots.

“I think it needs to be fixed,” Wheeland said. But “prior to the Nov. 3 election, a significant number of my constituents liked it. With the alleged infractions, they don’t like it so much now, but I just don’t think it’s going to go away.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.