Gov. Wolf vetoes bill that tied voting machine funding to end of straight-ticket ballots

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at rally for his Restore PA infrastructure plan Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a bill that tied funding for voting machines to the elimination of straight-ticket voting and other election changes. 

“Pennsylvania must secure its elections and provide real reform that makes it easier to vote,” Wolf said in a statement Friday. “Senate Bill 48 makes changes to our elections that I do not believe strike the right balance to improve access to voters or security. The bill weakens the ability of the commonwealth and counties to quickly respond to security needs of voting systems in the future, creating unnecessary bureaucracy and potentially harmful delays.”

Wolf said he remains “committed to voting machine funding,” but maintained that eliminating straight-ticket voting would harm voters.

Last year, Wolf’s administration ordered a mass decertification of existing machines, citing security concerns.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly in June passed a bill that provides $90 million in funding for that purpose. But it was amended to add other electoral reforms — including a controversial provision to end straight-ticket voting and changes to absentee balloting.

How one bill could fund voting machines, change Pennsylvania’s elections, and tick off Democrats

Republicans — and a handful of Democratic backers — said making each voter choose their candidates individually and not by party is a good-government measure that would increase election awareness. 

Many Democrats raised concerns that the measure would result, deliberately or not, in voter suppression. 

“This bill takes a step back. This bill holds the purchase of new voting machines hostage to regressive … election reform,” Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, said on the House floor. “This bill will restrict … and constrain black voters, Latino voters, disabled voters, poor voters, elderly voters, those with limited literacy, and many others who rely on straight-ticket voting.”

A federal judge threw out a similar straight-ticket ban last year in Michigan, citing increased wait times that might deter voters. The law was later upheld on appeal.

The veto drew the praise of Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat and ranking member of the House State Government Committee. He said he’s “happy the governor recognized the bill as written would put an onerous burden on voters.”

He expects that funding and some of the other included reforms, like changes to the state’s restrictive absentee ballot rules, would be addressed come autumn, ideally without “toxic amendments.”

Boyle’s GOP counterpart, Rep. Garth Everett, the Lycoming County Republican who chairs the State Government Committee, said concerns about voter suppression were not on his radar when the provision was added in committee.

He also fretted about counties getting “jammed up” from a lack of funding.

“I just don’t think straight-party voting is that big an issue to not fund the voting machines for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Everett told the Capital-Star. “I think it is just way, way overblown.”

The veto was also disappointing to Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. Hill said the Wolf administration told the group it understood that funding for voting machines was needed — and needed quickly.

With the veto, “we’re going to be anxious to see what [Wolf’s] plan is to get that [funding] accomplished,” Hill told the Capital-Star.

He added that the administration has already reached out to talk about next steps.

Thirty of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have yet to replace their voting machines, according to the Department of State. Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Republicans, said in an email that “the Wolf administration acted unilaterally to decertify our state’s voting machines,” but “now the administration is blocking counties from receiving the funding they have requested to meet the administration’s demands.”

After announcing in the spring of 2018 that machines with a paper trail would be required, the Wolf administration reiterated its commitment to the changes as part of a legal settlement over 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s recount lawsuit.

Straub pointed to the rest of the included voting reforms as positives, while calling straight-ticket voting “an antiquated practice.”

The county commissioners were also in favor of the proposed election changes, according to Hill — including the straight-ticket ban.

Under Pennsylvania law, a person who votes straight-ticket cannot deviate from that selection without invalidating their ballot. This is unique to the commonwealth, Hill said, and makes finding voting machines more difficult.

Just six states still offer straight-ticket voting in all elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Keystone Votes, a coalition of groups in favor of election reform, said it was disappointed that “partisanship sidetracked important reform and election security efforts.”

“What has been an open, transparent, and bipartisan process for most of this legislative session went off the rails during these final weeks of the fiscal year,” Ray Murphy, Keystone Votes’ state coordinator, said in a statement. “We need to stay on track with these proposals — especially allowing optional voting by mail and revising outdated deadlines for absentee ballot submissions — and continue full steam ahead to get this work done before the 2020 election.”

Read Wolf’s full veto message below:

Voting is what powers and sustains our democracy.  I firmly believe that both I and the General Assembly have an obligation to strive to make voting more secure and more accessible to the citizens of this Commonwealth.  Unfortunately, this legislation does not seek to increase voter participation in Pennsylvania.  This failure is a missed opportunity to enact meaningful voting reforms.

This legislation, while purporting to secure elections, binds the hands of future administrations through a decertification procedure which weakens the ability of the commonwealth and counties to quickly respond to flaws that would require the decertification of large numbers of machines fewer than 180 days before an election.  This is not acceptable as a legislative measure.

Finally, this bill eliminates straight party ballot voting. This policy choice removes a convenient voting option which is used by voters of any party affiliation.   To implement such a change, particularly as new machines are being used for the first time, could lead to voter confusion and longer lines at the polls.  These factors may lead to decreased voter participation, which, again, is in conflict with an inclusive approach to our system of elections.  I sought amendatory language at various points to include voter-friendly reforms in this legislation, but those changes were not accepted.

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