Pa. Senate GOP advances ‘first pass’ at election fixes. Wolf says talks are ongoing

Governor Tom Wolf speaking with the press. Governor Tom Wolf today presented his fall legislative agenda for worker and family support and protections, COVID-19 recovery, and government reform. The initiatives were introduced to focus the General Assembly after a spring and summer of Republican efforts to curtail the administration’s efforts to manage the pandemic and keep the public safe. Harrisburg, PA – August 25, 2020

With barely two months left until the Nov. 3 general election, Pennsylvania lawmakers are “actively negotiating” changes to the state’s election code as they try to resolve crucial questions of election security in the Legislature rather than in the courts, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday.

But there’s not yet consensus among Democrats and Republicans on what measures the state should take to ensure a timely tally of election results, something that proved out of reach for many counties when a record 1.5 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in the June 2 primary.

Wolf said Tuesday he opposes some measures in an omnibus election reform package released Monday from the top Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state Senate, which would give counties more time to distribute and process mail-in ballots but voters less time to request them. 

The legislation, sponsored by  Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, would allow counties to open election mail and prepare ballots for tabulation up to three days before polls open on Nov. 3, and give them two additional weeks to send mail-in ballots to voters.

It would also relax eligibility requirements for poll workers and watchers, making it easier for counties to recruit essential Election Day personnel ahead of November.

Those provisions are high priorities for the Democratic Wolf administration, which says counties need more time to administer mail-in voting to avoid long waits for results on Election Day. 

But during a Tuesday press conference where he unveiled his fall legislative agenda, Wolf said he opposes the proposal because it advances the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot by more than a week. 

State law currently allows voters to request mail-in ballots up to seven days before an election. Corman and Scarnati say that moving the cut-off date to 15 days before an election will help the U.S. Postal Service ensure it can deliver all election mail on time to voters. 

But the Senate GOP  proposal comes with a tradeoff, since voters would have less time to request mail-in ballots. That provision led Wolf to oppose it, saying Tuesday that wouldn’t support any proposal that restricts access to vote-by-mail during the pandemic.

“If we want people to vote by mail, we have to make it so it works as well as possible,” Wolf said.

The fate of drop-off boxes?

Wolf said that the bill represented the “first pass” at serious election reform. He signaled openness to negotiating some of the components that have been priorities for his party, such as the use of drop-off boxes to collect mail-in ballots on election day. 

The administration issued new guidance this month for counties that want to use drop off-boxes where voters can deposit ballots without relying on mail service. 

But the GOP proposal requires voters to bring their completed ballots to “the permanent offices of the county board of elections,” a provision that would effectively ban drop-off boxes and satellite voting offices in Pennsylvania, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

Drop-off boxes have become a recent target of President Donald Trump, who falsely said in a Tweet Sunday that they lead to voter fraud and spread COVID-19. Twitter censored the claim, saying it violated rules against voter suppression.

The Trump campaign has also sued Pennsylvania to prevent the use of drop-off ballot boxes in November, though the suit was stayed by a federal judge Sunday. 

Democratic lawmakers told the Inquirer that they’re worried about limits on ballot drop-boxes, especially given reports of postal delays nationwide.

Wolf said Tuesday that there are “reasons to be concerned about safety and security of drop boxes,” but reiterated that he wanted to create more ways for people to cast ballots securely, not fewer.

What comes next?

The Senate Republican bill addressed some of the snags identified in an August report from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which evaluated county-level data from the June 2 primary election to recommend changes to the state election law ahead of November’s general election.

But some of the proposals fall short of what the administration wants. 

The Department of State, which oversees elections in Pennsylvania, has recommended that counties get up to three additional weeks to open ballots and prepare them for counting — a period known as “pre-canvassing” — rather than the three additional days that Corman and Scarnati proposed. 

Wolf said Tuesday that negotiations are ongoing with legislative leaders. But a spokeswoman for the Senate Republican caucus said that discussions about election bills have taken place among staff, and that the Governor has not had a call with legislative leaders since July.

In a prepared statement Monday, Corman reiterated Wolf’s desire to solve issues in the Legislature, even as lawsuits challenging Pennsylvania election code swirl in state and federal courts

Voters rights groups said that there’s little time to waste to enact legislative changes to uphold faith and security in November’s election.

“The longer the Legislature waits to act, we risk confusion that disenfranchises voters and undermines confidence in our election system,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a non-parsian coalition of voting and civil rights groups. “Not to mention that – practically – the longer it takes to make changes, the less time county and state election officials have to implement those changes effectively.