Amid Democratic dissent, brokered election reform bill advances in the Pa. House

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With the wave of his veto pen, Gov. Tom Wolf kickstarted a political battle in July by saying no to a GOP plan to reform voting laws and fund new voting machines.

Four months later, Democrat Wolf and Republicans who control the General Assembly have struck a deal. It includes letting voters register up to 15 days before an election, letting them vote by mail, and — most controversially — the end of straight-ticket balloting. 

On Tuesday, the omnibus proposal was folded into a bill that’s now before the House State Government Committee. And according to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, it will eventually include a much sought-after $90 million in state funding for new voting machines.

The committee voted 17-8 on Tuesday to advance the bill to the full House for a vote. 

Last year, in an attempt to beef up security for the 2020 election, Wolf ordered the state’s 67 counties to purchase new voting machines with an auditable paper trail.

The decision was locked in by a legal settlement with 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s recount request in the Keystone State.

Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said Tuesday that the governor believes the bill “is a compromise and reasonable step forward towards improving our antiquated voting laws. He will continue to monitor the progress of the bill.”

The development, first reported by the Associated Press, was hailed by Republicans as an example of good negotiating that embodied that best of governing.

“If I could write the omnibus amendments, there would be some more stuff in it that’s not in it, and some stuff in it that’s not in it,” Everett said. 

Two of the changes are substantial. The language extends the time that Pennsylvanians can register to vote. Right now, the registration window closes 30 days before the election. 

The deal also calls for allowing any Pennsylvanian to request a mail-in ballot up to 50 days before an election, or earlier if approved by their county board of elections. Once the application is approved, the mail-in ballot must be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Night.

There’s little disagreement — among both Republicans and Democrats — that Pennsylvania’s voting laws are among the strictest in the nation and should be expanded. 

There’s bipartisan agreement Pa.’s absentee voting law is broken. Will the Legislature act?

 

Under current law, absentee ballots have to be in the hands of county election officials by the Friday before Election Day at 5 p.m.

The bill would represent a broad expansion of voting rights, and other Democrats have joined Wolf in backing the bill.

Sen. Anthony Williams, of Philadelphia, who’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate State Government Committee, said that while there’s a political advantage at stake in straight-ticket voting, political considerations shouldn’t play a role in electoral reforms.

“I know that a lot of my colleagues who come from Philadelphia see that as an issue, but frankly you can flip [that argument] into places where Republicans see that as an issue,” Williams told the Capital-Star.

Williams said the letter next to a name may not be the best barometer of a politician.

“Suppose [U.S. Sen.] Bob Casey and [former Gov.] Ed Rendell are on the same ticket. They’re both Democrats. One was for women’s reproductive rights, and one was not,” Williams said. “Do you push a straight ticket then?”

But other Democrats, such as Williams’ fellow Philadelphian, Rep. Kevin Boyle, the ranking Democrat on the House State Government Committee, have described the deal — negotiated behind closed doors — as a “betrayal of Democratic constituencies.”

A federal court threw out a similar proposal in Michigan, finding that eliminating straight-ticket voting can lead to long lines in African-American neighborhoods, deterring voter participation. But the law was upheld on appeal.

Currently, just seven states, including Pennsylvania, have straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

During the committee debate, House Democrats urged Wolf to take the bill and do what he did with the last one: veto it.

Everett said the bill has the support of House Republican leadership. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the Senate has also agreed to the deal.

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