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

(Kelley Minars/Flickr)

As lawmakers work frantically to finish the 2019-20 state budget, the House on Wednesday also advanced a packed bill to fund voting machine replacements and fundamentally alter Pennsylvania’s elections. 

The measure includes some provisions most politicos agree are a long time coming, but also features some controversial changes that Democrats are comparing to voter suppression.

Voting machines

This proposal, first passed in the Senate, began as a bill to prevent a mass decertification of 25,000 state voting machines pushed by Gov. Tom Wolf in spring 2018. 

Wolf pitched the measure as pre-emptive stab at election security, but local governments fretted over the high price tag of replacing thousands of voting machines. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania estimated a total cost of $125 million.

Senate Republicans introduced a bill in January to block Wolf’s voting machine order.

But by that time, the administration had already recommitted to updating the machines, as well as conducting election audits, as part of a settlement with 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

The bill passed the upper chamber in May in a near party-line vote but was amended in June by the House State Government Committee.

Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said Republicans lawmakers “didn’t quite understand why” the state was legally bound to compel counties to replace their voting machines based on the Stein settlement. Still, his committee maintained the current replacement plan while amending the bill to ensure that future decisions involve the Legislature.

But the changes to the bill didn’t stop there. The committee also voted to change Pennsylvania’s Byzantine absentee ballot rules, decrease the number of ballots each polling place must print, and end straight-ticket voting.

Everett said many of the changes came at the suggestion of the County Commissioners Association and mirror proposals in the Senate.

The bill got even more complicated this week.

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday added a measure to float $90 million in bonds — $15 million more than Wolf’s ask — to help counties fund replacement efforts. According to the Department of State, 30 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties must still replace their machines.

Straight-ticket voting

What started as a bipartisan good-government measure to remove the option to vote straight party has instead turned into a partisan firefight. 

The measure was championed by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, a frequent fighter for good-government reforms. 

But most Democratic lawmakers are opposed to the proposal, citing concerns that it would disproportionately impact voters in blue districts by slowing down the process.

A 2015 Michigan law to ban straight-ticket voting was first struck down — and then upheld — in federal court last year. One federal judge found the measure increased voting times by an average of three minutes, leading to longer lines to cast a ballot.

A federal appeals court reversed the ruling, finding the first ruling erred “in equating partisan motives with racial ones.”

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. 

Pennsylvania is one of six states that still offers straight-ticket voting in all elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states have either moved to eliminate it in the future or restrict its usage to certain elections.

Boscola’s bill passed the Senate on Tuesday, with just Boscola and one other Democrat joining with every Republican to approve the legislation.

Everett’s Democratic counterpart on the State Government Committee, Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, said Wednesday that while the bill has some positive aspects, he and his fellow Democrats can’t vote for it.

Aren Platt, a Democratic political operative, said he was naturally suspicious of anything pushed by Republicans around voting access. 

He cited remarks made by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, made in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election that voter ID laws could swing Pennsylvania to GOP candidate Mitt Romney.

“Historically, this Republican Legislature has never done anything to increase voting access,” Platt told the Capital-Star. He added that “everything they do has to be suspect.”

While some skepticism may be warranted, no research has suggested that getting rid of straight-ticket voting has a partisan outcome, Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College political science professor, said.

“I don’t think there is any over-the-top evidence about the impacts or its electoral implications,” he said.

With or without a straight-party option, Americans have been voting more and more for candidates from a single party, he added.

Absentee ballots

Under current law, Pennsylvania voters must send their absentee ballots in time to reach their county election office by 5 p.m. the Friday before an election.

The strict requirement sparked a legal challenge from the state American Civil Liberties Union, which says the requirement — combined with the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot — unconstitutionally restricts an individual’s right to vote.

Under the new law, absentee ballots would only need to be postmarked the Friday before Election Day.

What’s next?

The bill is set for a final vote in the House on Thursday and, since it has been amended, would need a final Senate vote before it heads to Wolf.

Wolf’s spokesperson, J.J. Abbott, said the governor will review the final bill when it reaches his desk and then decide what to do. 

Good-government advocates like Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, thinks the bill is too rushed. He compared it to “an interesting sandwich.”

While he supports individual reforms in the bill, such as absentee ballot reform, Sims said lawmakers should take more time to research and strengthen the voting measures.

“You don’t mix a cheesesteak with a hoagie. It’s two separate sandwiches,” Sims said. “Both are extremely tasty, but I don’t know how they’d taste together.”

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