Wolf vetoes Republican voting bill; GOP pivots to constitutional referendums

By: - June 30, 2021 2:02 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a rally for public education funding on June 8, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Legislative Republicans promised to advance constitutional amendments enacting stricter voting laws Wednesday after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the GOP-authored election code rewrite sent to his desk last week.

Wolf had promised to veto the bill sponsored by House State Government Committee Chair Seth Grove, R-York, a week ago. Still, it marched through the General Assembly.

In his veto message, Wolf said the proposal was “ultimately not about improving access to voting or election security, but about restricting the freedom to vote.”

Within an hour of the veto announcement, Grove, heading the committee which writes election policies, promised to reach for the GOP’s new favorite legislative tool — constitutional amendments — to enact change.

Such measures are approved by the Legislature before they go before voters in a referendum. Governors have no say on their ratification.

In a statement Wednesday, Grove said he’d schedule a committee vote on a constitutional amendment to mandate that voters show ID every time they vote. 

Current law only requires voters to show identification the first time they vote at their local polling place.

Legislative Democrats raised concerns with the exact language in the amendment, but Grove said that he would not talk further with Wolf on election issues.

“We’ve engaged multiple ways to address elections, he did not engage, and he ended up vetoing a bill that was the best deal he was gonna get,” Grove told the Capital-Star.

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In addition to the voter ID provision, the bill Wolf rejected Wednesday also mandated computer verification of mail-in ballot signatures, established in-person early voting in 2025, and rolled back the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots while shrinking the amount of time and ways to return mail-in ballots. 

The bill also would refund half of counties’ expenses to meet new requirements, with one exception: Counties would have to pay for increased security at ballot drop off boxes themselves.

County elections officials saw pros and cons to the bill. The proposal gives counties five days to process mail-in ballots before Election Day, which would give officials time to release accurate results on election night, instead of the days-long count that created so much uncertainty in 2020.

And moving the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot back from 7 to 15 days before the election, county officials said, would also prevent any voters from being disenfranchised from slow postal service.

But the additional measures beyond those in Grove’s bill likely would have weighed down already stressed and understaffed election departments, officials said, defeating the purpose of the changes.

“It is crucial for the General Assembly and Gov. Wolf to develop legislative language in collaboration with counties to ensure they can continue to implement our elections fairly, accurately and securely,” the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania said in a statement Wednesday.

Voting rights advocates and Democrats, meanwhile, fired broadsides declaring the bill to be nothing more than voter suppression, and thanked Wolf for his veto. 

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, welcomed “the governor’s decision to reject costly and duplicative election audits inspired by lies and conspiracy theories.”

There were also calls for “elected leaders to roll up their sleeves this summer and work together to adopt some of the policy changes we all agree on.”

“Small change is better than no change at all,” added Wesley Gadsden, field director of  the statewide organizing coalition One PA.

But from Grove’s tone, it appears future negotiations are off the table.

“We have a lame duck governor, and we’re going to treat him like it,” Grove said. “Maybe the next governor will be more amenable to negotiations.”

Public opinion

Voting law changes have been on Harrisburg’s agenda — and the agenda of GOP controlled state legislatures across the country — since the 2020 election, after former President Donald Trump whipped up his base with evidence-free accusations of voter fraud.

Some Pennsylvania Republicans echoed that call; one even attended, but says he did not participate in, the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol when Trump’s supporters tried to prevent  Congress from confirming President Joe Biden’s electoral college win.

But most Republicans instead followed a middle path. They did not claim outright fraud in 2020, but instead decried as unconstitutional rulings by the state Supreme Court allowing counties to use ballot drop-off boxes, or letting voters’ ballots count if, amid postal delays, they arrived up to three days after election day

These arguments showed up in a December 2020 letter to Congress — authored by Grove and signed by dozens of state GOP lawmakers — that asked for Pennsylvania’s electoral college results to be thrown out.

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Since then, Republicans have cited a lack of trust in elections as the reason for this most recent election reform push, and claimed their bill would make it easier to vote and harder to cheat, borrowing a line from a GOP strategy memo.

According to Republicans, Wolf has not engaged with their efforts to change the state’s voting laws.

Instead, Wolf “opted to defend the national Democrats party line and kowtow to special interests by crying foul to voter suppression in the media,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, , said in a joint statement.

The Senate leaders promised to bring up their own election bill this fall.

To be sure, there is a distinct partisan divide in how voters view election law changes.

A poll released two weeks ago by Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster found that nearly three in four Pennsylvania voters support showing a photo ID to vote. Support among Republicans for such a measure is 95 percent; among Democrats, just 47 percent.

The same poll found that 59 percent of Pennsylvania’s believe the commonwealth’s election laws need to be reformed, though that belief is strongest among Republicans. 

Overall, according to the poll, Republicans were also more likely to oppose mail-in ballots, which the GOP-controlled General Assembly approved and Wolf signed in 2019, then Democrats and Independents, who largely support mail-in ballots. 

And a minority of Republicans opposed giving counties their biggest ask — time to count mail-in ballots before election day.

Regardless of the poll numbers, Wolf said Wednesday his veto was warranted.

“I think the people of Pennsylvania in general do not want to see voter suppression in Pennsylvania, we don’t want to be Arizona or Texas or Florida or any of the other states,” Wolf said during a news conference. “We believe our democracy is important. And we want people to be able to vote.”

If the General Assembly passes the voter ID amendment this year, and again in the 2023-24 session, it could go before voters in a referendum as early as spring 2023 — putting Wolf’s theory to a live test after he leaves office. Voters will pick his successor next year.

Audit the vote?

In a related move, Wolf also made a slight amendment to the state’s budget Wednesday, which he signed Wednesday, eliminating $3.1 million of a proposed $5.6 million increase to the Auditor General Tim DeFoor’s budget.

DeFoor’s office had asked for a similar increase to increase staffing and purchase new technology for the office. But Republican legislative leaders insisted that a majority of the new funding was set up to fund audits of future elections.

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There was no legislative basis for this claim. Election audit spending does not appear in any of the 650-plus pages of budget legislation signed by Wolf this week. 

But Wolf issued the veto anyway, saying he was “compelled” to do so by vetoing Grove’s election bill, which would have authorized the auditor general to conduct election audits.

April Hutcheson, DeFoor’s spokesperson, told the Capital-Star that his office “will continue to advocate for the restoration of our budget to allow the auditor general to protect the taxpayers.”

Wolf added Wednesday he wasn’t opposed to approving an additional layer of election auditing in the Commonwealth. The Department of State and counties already conduct their own election audits.

His main concern, instead, was financing an audit of the 2020 election, which in the past weeks, some Trump-aligned Republicans have pushed for in Pennsylvania.

“We’ll sit down over the summer, and we’ll figure out how to get to the right place here,” Wolf said.

How far those talks will go is unclear. Funding for election audits was a proposal from House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. In a statement, he said Wolf’s veto broke the people’s trust.

“I will use every tool available to me to work to enact these important changes and am more committed than ever to making sure that no one, regardless of their position in government, works against the sanctity of the bedrock principle that governs a free people — the right to choose for themselves through lawfully conducted elections,” he said.

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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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