Elections officials, advocates see some to like — but a lot to raise eyebrows — in Pa. House GOP election bill

By: - June 15, 2021 5:47 pm

Pa. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre (L) and Rep. Seth Grove, R-York (R) speak during a state Capitol news conference on Wednesday, 9/2/20 (Screen Capture)

Since last November, House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, has signaled his interest in rewriting the state’s election law.

Now, after eight months and 30 hours of hearings, Grove’s nearly 150-page bill was approved in a party-line committee vote on Tuesday, making the first step in the long path to changing a law.

But the question of whether Grove’s bill even makes it that far is unclear — and unlikely. 

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow York Countian, has already pledged to veto any proposal that restricts voting access, and the two sides do not appear to be talking.

But as is, the bill would proposes a dramatic overhaul of county election technologies and procedures — mostly paid for by taxpayer dollars — while also promising a small expansion of voting access in  2025 with in-person early voting.

“I think it’s really difficult for Gov. Wolf to come in and veto this legislation,” Grove told the Capital-Star.

“Even if he doesn’t like voter ID, we have very unique policies. I’d highly suggest he and his administration, [the] Department of State, read the bill. It’s out. We’re not voting until [next week.]” 

But Grove’s proposal also makes some key changes to deadlines, voter verification, and the deadline for returning mail-in ballots that experts and elections officials warn will make voting more difficult.

“Not all of the House bill is bad,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican Philadelphia City Commissioner, who is charged with administering the city’s elections, “just it has a lot of good, a lot of bad and a lot of ugly.”

Tuesday’s vote comes after months of misinformation from former President Donald Trump, in which he and some of his allies in the Pennsylvania General Assembly made baseless claims of fraud, riling up their base and forcing Republicans to respond with a promises of change.

Without apologies, Pa. Republicans forge ahead with election hearings spree

Grove has, at times, pushed back on misinformation, including saying in April that that “there’s not like this mass amount of fraud, that’s going to shift hundreds of thousands of votes.”

But he also amplified Trump’s attacks on Dominion Voting Systems during  a Capitol press conference in November, and he organized the December letter to Congress asking for lawmakers to dispute Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election results. Twelve of the State Government Committee’s 15 Republican members signed that letter.

“This entire bill is predicated on a lie,” state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Tuesday during the committee vote. “We have the same people stoking the fire in the democratic process, who now want to come and act like they are firefighters.”

The biggest expansion of voting under the bill doesn’t come for at least four years — and two big elections — have passed. Starting in 2025, Grove’s bill would allow for five days of early, in-person voting.

That deadline could be moved, Grove said., But he and his fellow Republicans didn’t want to debut new election laws in 2022 for Pennsylvania’s highly contested and vacant governor’s mansion and U.S. Senate seats.

“The entire makeup of the [U.S.] Senate is going to come through Pennsylvania. Big election. So we wanted to make sure we had some consistency there,” Grove said. “If everything is good, moving it to 2023 is a good discussion point. But we wanted to make sure everything is smooth and ready.”

The bill also includes two noteworthy measures to expand voter verification, most notably signature checks for mail-in ballots, and expanded identification requirements for in-person voting.

Pennsylvania currently requires voters to show ID when they vote for the first time at a polling place. Thirty-six other states have stricter forms of voter ID, but a Pennsylvania version was ruled unconstitutional in 2014 by state courts.

Pa. Republicans eyeing tighter voter ID requirements to meet wall of Wolf veto

 

Meanwhile, the Wolf administration successfully argued for the state Supreme Court to invalidate a signature check requirement in the state mail-in ballot law before the 2020 election.

Jonathan Diaz, a legal analyst with the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C.-based public interest law firm that advocates for expanded voting access, said both of Grove’s proposals to restore these requirements were OK on paper.

Diaz thought the bill’s proposed signature verification was fair, as it required counties to attempt to fix, or “cure” ballots with a faulty signature.

The proposed voter ID law also was reasonable to Diaz. As it’s currently written, counties would give every voter a durable voter registration card that they could use at their polling place.

Expanding ID requirements are opposed by many on the left because studies have found that Black and Latino voters are less likely to have IDs. Studies are mixed on if that translates into lower voter turnout.

If counties can “actually get an ID into the hands of every voter — which is easier said than done — that would alleviate some of the access problems,” Diaz said.

While the verification rules looked fine on paper, Diaz raised concerns with proposed restrictions on how voters can return mail-in ballots. Provisions in Grove’s bill, Diaz said, looked like what other GOP-controlled legislatures have suggested in the wake of Trump’s loss.

Among the restrictions in Grove’s bill is a limit of one alternate ballot drop-off location per-100,000 people, per county. The drop-off locations must also be video monitored, and partisan officials must stand by the location and check the IDs of those dropping off ballots.

“That to me is a recipe for voter intimidation and partisan interference in the election process,” Diaz told the Capital-Star.

The effect of the limitations can be seen across the Philadelphia suburbs. Local officials in Delaware County set up 35 drop-off boxes; in Chester County, they set up 11 in the 2020 election. 

But under Grove’s bill, both counties would be limited to a maximum of five alternate drop-off locations.

Chester County’s boxes also were open for three weeks before the election., But Grove’s bill would limit the boxes to be open for just a week before Election Day.

Another portion of the bill, which Grove and other Republicans celebrated Tuesday, provides assistance to people living with disabilities. 

The bill includes a “Disabled Voter’s Bill of Rights,” which allows people with disabilities to move to the front of the line, mandates that all polling places be wheelchair accessible, and it would allow people with disabilities to vote from within 150 feet of the entrance to a polling place while observed by officials.

But the latter section also fell short with advocates, such as Peri Jude Radecic of Disability Rights PA. 

As it’s now written, she argued, Grove’s bill subjects disabled voters to “additional oversight that other voters are not subject to, and can violate our right to a private and independent vote.”

Philadelphia’s Schmidt added that the curbside voting provision might not work with the city’s voting equipment. At best, a person with a disability might only be able to cast a provisional ballot under the law with the city’s machines.

Schmidt’s implementation concerns were echoed by the group representing the commonwealth’s 67 county governments. 

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that Grove’s proposal addressed two of counties’ top priorities

It would give local election officials time before Election Day to count mail-in ballots — five, in total — and move back the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots from seven to 15 days before the election. 

The bill also moves back the deadline to register to vote before the election from 15 to 30 days before each election.

The former two changes “would ease the majority of the challenges counties saw last year in implementing Act 77,” Schaefer said in an email.

County officials have been asking for these changes since June 2020. But partisanship and court rulings blocked a path forward before the presidential election.

However, Schaefer raised concerns that “the breadth of the bill means significant impacts for county election operations that would require resources and time to implement.” 

The bill would reimburse counties for half of their expenses to meet the bill’s new requirements, as well as reimburse the full cost of new, electronic poll books that Grove argued would keep voting lines short and moving.

But as counties continue to work with elevated mail-in voting and fewer poll workers, more money may not solve the problem, Schaefer said.

“We are absolutely interested in working with the General Assembly on additional Election Code amendments,” she added. “But we must do our due diligence to be sure counties can actually implement the amendments as intended, with sufficient time and appropriate resources to support any new requirements, rather than rushing something with such major ramifications.”

The proposal is separate from what the state Senate, also controlled by Republicans, might consider. 

A report released by a Senate special election committee this week recommended similar policies as Grove’s bill, including additional security at ballot drop offs and more funding for county election boards, among others.

Grove’s bill could come up for a final vote in the House as soon as next week. Grove has indicated he’d like to pass the election bill by the end of the month.

If not, reluctant Republican lawmakers are unlikely to change anything until after 2022 — when new districts and a new governor will once again shake up the political equation.

But as of Tuesday, Grove and Republicans are stuck working with Wolf, who reiterated his position in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“This bill is not about improving access to voting or election security, but about trying to control voting for their own political gain, just as their counterparts are doing in states around the country,” Wolf 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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