By Deborah Rose Hinchey
Last week, the Republican-controlled Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee , chaired by Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, kicked off the first of a series of hearings on so-called “irregularities” in the administration of the 2020 election. In announcing the series of hearings, Dush also invited Pennsylvanians to submit examples of alleged fraud in an election already repeatedly proven to be free from fraud.
What could go wrong?
Well, one thing that didn’t go quite as planned, at least if you’re Dush, was the committee’s first hearing.
Stewart Ulsh, who chairs both the Fulton County Election Board and the Fulton County Commissioners, was the only witness at the hearing.
In December, Ulsh authorized a secret audit of election machines at the request of Sens. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin. Both are allies of former President Donald Trump.
Mastriano would organize caravans of passengers — some of whom have since been taken into custody — to take part only weeks later in the Jan. 6 events that resulted in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In response to questions about the secret audit at the hearing, Ulsh told senators that the audit had found nothing wrong with the election. No smoking gun here. Ulsh was also unable to name who paid for it and how much it cost, which raised questions not of election but about the committee’s attempt to overturn the legitimate and fraud-free election.
While COVID-19 is raging throughout the Commonwealth and its health and economic impacts still being felt by millions of Pennsylvanians, and as Republican leaders continue to sit on over $7 billion in federal aid that could be going to help small businesses, schools, or direct service providers in difficult times, Dush and his Republican colleagues seem dead set on using these hearings as a means to justify a sham audit modeled after the “Cyber Ninja” debacle in Arizona.
And then, armed with “evidence” from these hearings and from the Cyber Ninjas, they will continue to pursue draconian changes with the only goal to make it more difficult for Pennsylvanians to vote.
As the Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Editor-in-Chief, John L. Micek, pointed out in a column last week, “the Senate’s performative gesture seems intended for an audience of one — an aggrieved ex-president living in exile. And it will only further undermine the public’s faith in our elections — an end that seems baked into this farcical process.”
And now, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, is demanding the committee issue subpoenas for… it isn’t clear what.
But it goes beyond just political theater.
Republicans in Pennsylvania voted almost unanimously in 2019 for Act 77, a series of reforms to Pennsylvania election law that, among other things, expanded vote-by-mail, created a permanent vote by mail list, allowed for an extended registration period, and funded new voting machines that provide a clear paper trail.
These improvements to our electoral system are some of the top targets of the current GOP hysteria. These same Republicans in the state legislature have spent countless hours baselessly criticizing their own reforms while promoting election conspiracies about the 2020 election, the same election where many of these Members won re-election.
The sham Senate review follows a series of 10 hearings held by House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove R-York. Those hearings led directly to the introduction of a bill that included a laundry list of restrictive voting reforms (HB1300), passed by the GOP-led House and Senate and subsequently vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
Instead of having hard conversations about why the majority of Pennsylvanians don’t like what they stand for, Republican legislators would rather find ways to make it harder for those same Pennsylvanians to hold them accountable at the ballot box. Bottom line: The 2020 election is over. It was safe, secure & verified with record turnout on both sides. The PA legislature launching another taxpayer-funded election review is a waste of their time, attention, and taxpayer dollars.
Instead of counterproductive changes to election law that put up barriers to vote for eligible Pennsylvanians, there are a series of election reforms that will actually improve our system of elections while making the difficult job of administering our elections less cumbersome.
Many of these reforms are ones that local elections officials of both parties have asked the General Assembly to implement. These are the kind of reforms we should all be able to agree on:
Modernize Vote-by-Mail Process
- Allow pre-canvassing to begin processing ballots up to 15 days prior to Election Day (currently, pre-canvassing can only begin at 7am on Election Day). Pre-canvassing isn’t vote counting but rather generally involves confirming the identity and authenticity of the voter, verifying the voter’s information to confirm that they are registered and eligible to vote, and checking the signature on the ballot envelope against a signature on file.
- Permit mail ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day but arrive at the county election office after Election Day. For the 2020 election, over 20 states allowed mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrived within three to seven days after Election Day.
- Maintain a permanent mail-in voting list. Continue to allow voters to sign up once to automatically receive a ballot in the mail prior to each election. This would be easier to maintain for local election officials than having to create a new mail-in list each election.
Modernize Election Process to Enhance Safety, Voter Access
- Allow early in-person voting to relieve congestion at polling locations and give voters with challenging work schedules or family situations the chance to choose the time that works best for them. In the 2020 election, 23 states allowed early in-person voting that functions similarly to Election Day voting.
- Establish vote centers, giving voters the chance to cast a ballot whether they are by their home, job, school or anywhere that is convenient, and relieve county pressure on poll worker recruitment. Establishing vote centers allows voters to cast their ballots on Election Day at any vote center in the jurisdiction, regardless of their residential address. Seventeen other states have established the use of vote centers on Election Day.
- Permit same-day voter registration to allow voters to register up to and including on Election Day. In states with same-day voter registration, voter turnout has increased 7-10% as many voters do not become engaged in state and local elections until the final weeks before Election Day.
- Develop an automatic voter registration (AVR) system. Automatically register people to vote through DMV or other state agencies. AVR markedly increases the number of registered voters and saves the state money on maintaining outdated voter registration systems that rely on data entry.
- Pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. Many young voters are unaware of Pennsylvania’s registration deadlines or even how to register to vote. This legislative reform offers 16- and 17-year-olds the opportunity to pre-register to vote using government agencies — especially when they get their driver’s license — thus increasing engagement in the political process and Election Day turnout without any budget increases to the state. Nineteen states have passed this legislation, including neighboring states West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
There’s no reason our state legislators can’t work in a bipartisan fashion to make sure voting continues to be accessible for everyone, while making the job of our local election officials more manageable.
When it comes to elections, that’s their duty. It’s time for political grandstanding to end, and it’s time to implement common sense reforms to make our system of voting work better for all Pennsylvanians.
Deborah Rose Hinchey is the executive director of the good government group, Better PA. She writes from Harrisburg.
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