Pa. House advances bill changing state’s primary date; half of votes cast from outside Harrisburg

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, wears gloves as he confirms a remote vote on the Pa. House floor. (Pa. House screenshot)

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has unanimously advanced legislation pushing back the state’s primary to June 2; that authorizes using bars as polling places, and that puts into place a legal framework for remote municipal meetings. 

Tuesday votes,  the General Assembly’s first response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth, also marked the first time lawmakers casted a floor vote en masse from outside of the state’s capital in the nearly 350-year history of the legislative body. 

About half of the House Republican Caucus’ 107 lawmakers voted from the floor. The rest voted remotely, Mike Straub, spokesperson for the House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told the Capital-Star.

Bill Patton, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said 27 of the House Democratic Caucus’ 93 lawmakers were in the Capitol for the vote. 

Pennsylvania’s House is the second state legislative body to use remote voting in the face of the coronavirus, according to Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arizona’s state House passed $50 million in pandemic aid Monday, with 18 of the chamber’s 60 lawmakers casting votes electronically, according to the Arizona Mirror, a sibling site of the Capital-Star.

Some of the most significant changes to Pennsylvania’s election code approved Tuesday only apply to the postponed presidential primary — originally set for April 28. 

These changes include letting establishments that sell alcohol be used as polling places, shifting poll workers away from their home precincts to another election district, and consolidating polling places.

Changes to polling places drew criticisms from some electoral reform advocates, such as  Keystone Votes — a nonpartisan coalition of community and advocacy groups.

Changing the primary date was the right move, the coalition’s coordinator Ray Murphy, said in a statement.

“Pennsylvanians want assurances that a free and fair election will remain available to all eligible voters,” he said, but “giving counties the authority to move a precinct all the way across the town could disenfranchise eligible voters.”

Remote municipal meetings will apply for the duration of Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration, and any subsequent crisis.

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As of Tuesday, the state Department of Health has identified 851 cases of the disease in 40 counties. Seven Pennsylvanians have died in the pandemic.

Changes to the state’s April 28 primary have been expected for more than a week, as Wolf gradually ramped up prevention measures from voluntary county-by-county restrictions to statewide shutdowns of whole industries enforced by state police.

Lawmakers and advocates expressed concerns that voters might catch the coronavirus in a packed polling place, or that voters would overwhelmingly turn to new mail-in ballots, swamping county election officials.

The mail-in ballots were approved in a bipartisan, omnibus election reform bill passed last fall.

A permanent change added to the bill will allow for county election offices to process, but not count, mail-in or absentee ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, before polls close.

Allowing the early processing of mail-in ballots was an early ask from county election officials, one that House Republican leadership recognized even before the pandemic.

Election officials said that they could be left processing thousands of new, mailed in votes late into election night.

That fear has only grown with the spread of coronavirus. Some lawmakers have called for all primary votes to be cast by mail.

Delaying the primary itself was a top priority for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Executive Director Lisa Schaefer said.

Schaefer told the Capital-Star that it “is also imperative that we have this ability to begin processing [ballots], otherwise people need to prepare for it to take a significant amount of work and resources, and a significant amount of time to get [election] results completed.”

The measures will require a final House vote, likely Wednesday, before they’d move to the Senate and then, if approved, to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.