Amid partisan debate, Pa. House passes voting reform bill

Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks on the House floor on Wednesday (screen capture)

A sharply divided Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted largely along party lines Wednesday to send the state Senate an election reform bill that backers say give counties more time to deal with an anticipated flood of mail-in ballots as voters make their voices heard in the middle of a pandemic.

The Republican-controlled chamber voted 112-90 to approve an amended bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, that Democrats derided because they said it would suppress the vote by effectively banning remote drop-boxes, and because it moves the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot from the current seven days before an election to 15 days before the election, according to published reports.

Wolf, Repubs both say they want election reform. Will they get it in time? | Friday Morning Coffee

“Last week we were here celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, where women won the right to vote,” Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia, said. “I will never vote to support restrictions on voting rights. And that’s what this bill does. Counties are trying to hold elections in a pandemic. And we’re going to pass a bill that restricts voting rights? In a pandemic we need something to believe in, and that’s voting rights. We should be making it easier, not harder.”

Republicans countered that the House was acting on the recommendations of a June report by the Department of State that concluded that officials learned “valuable lessons from the primary that we can use to ensure an even smoother voting experience in the general election in November.”

“After primary my county called me and said we have problems, you need to fix these things, There’s no such thing as a perfect bill, but this bill moves the ball forward,” Moul said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s debate. “You’ve heard that the [state county commissioners’ association] supports moving the ball forward. As far as the bill is concerned — does it help our county election bureaus? Thea answer is yes. So why wouldn’t you want to help your counties … especially with an election coming up in a couple of months?”

In a statement released to the investigative news site Spotlight PA, the Wolf administration said it opposed the bill, as it was amended, “for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that the bill makes it harder, not easier, for citizens to vote.

The amended measure allows counties to start counting mail-in and absentee ballots three days before Election Day. A prior version would have allowed for 21 days, Spotlight PA reported.

Wolf is calling on “the Legislature to act on a limited number of priorities to ensure that every vote will be counted, guarantee results will be known in a timely manner, and afford counties flexibility in staffing in-person polling locations,” administration spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told Spotlight PA.

According to the Associated Press, county election boards expect to handle 3 million mail-in ballots this campaign season, or more than 10 times the amount cast in 2016.

“This bill is about fine-tuning the mail-in procedures we put into effect in 2017,” House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming said during floor debate. ” … This is not about erecting barriers. This is about allowing more people to vote, conveniently, through the mail.”

The Republican-controlled state Senate has its own election measure, sponsored by that chamber’s top two GOP leaders. That plan similarly gives counties more time to distribute and process mail-in ballots but voters less time to request them, the Capital-Star previously reported.

The Senate returns to session on Sept. 8.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press