Bill that overhauls how Pennsylvanians can vote is headed to Gov. Tom Wolf

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

A bill that allows any Pennsylvanian to vote by mail, provides millions of dollars in state funding for new voting machines, and eliminates straight-ticket ballots is headed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. 

The proposal passed the state House on Tuesday by a vote of 138-61. The state Senate granted its approval that evening with a 35-14 vote.

The bill includes a number of changes to Pennsylvania’s elections code. By the 2020 primary election, the commonwealth will allow:

  • Any voter to cast a ballot by mail, at least 50 days before the election
  • New voter registration up to 15 days before an election, rather than 30 days
  • Absentee or mail-in ballots to arrive by 8 p.m. on Election Day, rather than by 5 p.m. the Friday before Election Day

Republicans and some Democrats hailed the bill as a historic rewrite of outdated laws, with Wolf calling the bill “a major advancement for elections in Pennsylvania.” 

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, echoed that sentiment, saying the legislation is “the most significant modernization of Pennsylvania’s elections code in decades.”

But some Democrats fumed about the elimination of straight-ticket voting and criticized the private negotiating process between Wolf and Republican legislative leaders.

Democratic lawmakers also said the elimination of straight-party voting would confuse voters and increase wait times at polling places, especially since the reforms will take effect as many Pennsylvania counties roll out new voting machines.

Wolf acknowledged those concerns in a statement, but reiterated that the bill is a “giant leap forward that makes voting more convenient for millions of Pennsylvanians and improves our election security.”

The omnibus bill also lacks a handful of voter registration policies that Democratic lawmakers say would increase voter turnout. Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee tried to amend those policies into the bill late Tuesday afternoon. 

But Corman, who chairs the committee, said “any amendments at this point would put a flaw” in months of negotiations between Republican legislative leaders and Wolf. The amendments failed one by one in votes that largely fell on party lines. 

$90 million in funding, with some strings attached

The House Appropriations Committee amended the bill late Monday night, making $90 million in funding for new voting machines available to Pennsylvania’s counties.

The money was a point of contention between Wolf and Republican leadership in the General Assembly during the summer budget negotiations. Wolf rejected an earlier proposal that also eliminated straight-ticket voting, citing the change in his veto message.

But there is a condition: Counties can only access the funds if they conduct regular voter purges.

Under state law, voters can be removed from the rolls if they haven’t voted in the past five years, fail an in-person address check, or if a voter doesn’t answer a mailed form and then confirm a change of address.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, claimed that some counties are not conducting the regular voter purges, which are already required under state law.

But the Wolf administration says that every county has conducted voter removal programs this year. The voter removal program resulted in 108,851 cancellations in 2018, while the Department of State cancelled 380,154 registrations total that year, according to an internal report.

The House also authorized the administration to spend $4 million in unused funds from the Department of State on outreach for the 2020 census. Wolf had originally asked for $12.7 million, a dollar for each Pennsylvania resident. 

The bill does not include any additional money to educate voters on the new voting procedures, which concerned some Democrats. They fear county election offices may need to hire more staff to process the anticipated influx of mail-in ballots and voter registrations. 

“This is a pretty massive overhaul in a year, and if we do so, there should be voter education,” ranking House Appropriations Democrat Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, said.

‘This is the moment’

To answer questions from concerned House Democrats, top administration staffers visited members in a closed-door meeting Tuesday, according to three lawmakers who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters.

The staffers answered lawmakers’ questions about the bill, focusing on the straight-ticket elimination and the additional voter removal language.

The exchanges were testy, according to lawmakers, but the staffers defended the bill’s many positive provisions expanding voting access.

But the fact that the visit was needed at all struck some Democrats as showing a lack of trust and communication between Wolf and his legislative allies.

As one Democratic lawmaker said, it’s clear that the Wolf administration has “a master plan” and that “they think they got it down.” 

“So he could just come in and say ‘I have a master plan, trust me,’” to his Democratic allies, the lawmaker continued. 

Rep. Jason Dawkins, a Democrat who chairs Philadelphia’s House delegation, said calling the bill bipartisan “is simply not true.”

“When this bill was being negotiated, there wasn’t any member from the House minority party involved. There wasn’t anyone from Philadelphia, the largest county in the commonwealth to be impacted,” Dawkins said on the House floor.

Still, the reforms found strong support inside and outside the Capitol.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania backed the legislation for providing funding for new voting machines. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged Pennsylvania’s absentee ballot law in court, also supported the bill.

The package also has the backing of good government group Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the anti-corruption group March on Harrisburg.

Michael Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, said that there were valid concerns with the bill, but it still represents a “net positive.” 

Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Philadelphia, said she’s one of the “rare breed” of Democrats who backed the bill. She said that the timing — coming a year before a critical election — and its scope seemed to concern her Democratic colleagues.

But, DeLissio added, “I’ve looked back over 10 years, [and] no voting reforms have moved.”

“This is the moment.”

The number of cancelled voter registrations has been corrected.