What a difference a year makes.
Last October, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Republican lawmakers congratulated each other on a grand compromise between the two sides.
Wolf and Democratic legislators agreed to a ban on straight-party ticket voting in exchange for allowing voters to mail in their ballots without any excuses, as was the previous law.
The deal came after Wolf vetoed a bill banning straight-party ticket voting. At the time, Wolf said he believed removing the straight-ticket option could lead to voter confusion and long lines at the polls, resulting in fewer voters at the polls.
Some critics called it a form of “voter suppression” because of the potential for long lines at the polls.
However, talks continued between Gov. Wolf and GOP lawmakers, which eventually lead to their groundbreaking deal.
“While I understand the concerns about eliminating the straight party ticket option, this bipartisan bill creates the most significant improvements to our elections in more than 80 years,” said Wolf when he signed the bill into law.
“We have a Democratic governor. We have a Republican Legislature – there’s always give and take and we have to be able to give to get,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “I think this bill is a product of that.”
But that was then, and the two sides are definitely in a different place these days.
Imagine all the problems across the state if we didn’t have mail-in voting this election.
Of course, last October, no one knew a pandemic would hit the nation months later, making mail-in voting not just a convenience for many voters but a necessity, especially for older citizens with underlying conditions who are in the crosshairs of the coronavirus.
And no one could have foreseen that President Trump would go on the attack against mail-in voting, contending without any evidence that it would lead to massive corruption. Behind in the polls, Trump has maintained that the only way he can lose the election is if Democrats rig it through mail-in voting.
Relations between Wolf and legislative Republicans deteriorated during the pandemic. Republicans claimed Wolf was acting like a king, not a governor, while Wolf maintained that he was only doing what was necessary to protect the commonwealth residents.
Bitter feelings developed on both sides, and that made a compromise on other election law changes unlikely. Both sides sought help in the courts rather than talking to each other and trying to work out a compromise.
Wolf has turned to the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by Democrats, and it has often sided with him.
However, Republicans are appealing those decisions, and they could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s no way of knowing how the highest court in the land will look at some of these proposed changes.
That’s why it would have been much better if the two sides could have worked out their differences. It could have lessened Trump’s claims that Democrats were rigging the election, resulting in a less chaotic and uncertain contest.
The problem goes back to the fact that both chambers hold far fewer sessions days than they should. This year, both the Senate and House are on schedule to have just 50 session days. That’s unbelievable.
Session days are the only days that lawmakers can vote on legislation. While legislators also hold committee hearings, caucus meetings, and various other events back home, session days are crucial since voting should be why we elect legislators in the first place.
We’ll never know for sure, but things could have been different if the two sides had started talking about election law changes back in June. Instead, the House went on recess June 24 and had only four session days before it reconvened on Sept. 1. The House has only eight session days scheduled for September and four in October.
The Senate went on recess June 30 and only had three session days before reconvening on Sept. 1. The Senate only scheduled six session days in September and six days in October.
So, in the middle of a pandemic and with the hot issue of election law changes facing them, both chambers just punted. And it wasn’t only Republicans. There was nary a peep of protest from Democratic lawmakers.
It just makes sense that if lawmakers had begun talks in July that some sort of agreement would have been more likely than waiting for September when tensions between both sides reached the boiling point of no return.
Wolf and GOP lawmakers proved they could compromise last year. Too bad, it’s doubtful to happen this election year when the future of our democracy is on the line.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.