Pa. Senate sends Voter ID constitutional amendment to House for review

By: - June 23, 2021 6:16 pm

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

The GOP-controlled state Senate has approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would mandate voter identification for every election — sending it to the House.

The three-page bill, sponsored by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, is the latest attempt made by Republicans to avoid Gov. Tom Wolf and his veto pen by turning to the voters at a statewide referendum. The upper chamber voted 30-20 to approve legislation that would require identification for every election.

“Why are we even here?” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, asked during the floor debate after describing the tactic as “legislating by constitutional amendment.”

The governor has no veto power over constitutional amendments.

“It’s a little concerning that you can get something on the ballot if you control the Legislature without anyone actually overseeing that and weighing in,” Wolf said at a January press conference. Wolf saw his emergency powers curtailed when voters approved constitutional tweaks during the May primary election.

Currently, Pennsylvanians only have to show identification when they register to vote, and when it’s their first time voting at their polling place. As it’s currently written, the legislation would require voters to include proof of an approved form of identification with their ballot whether voting in person or by mail every time. 

Recent Franklin and Marshall College polling shows that 74 percent of voters favor identification requirements, results that were cited by several GOP lawmakers on the Senate floor during debate.

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, argued that the legislation was incomplete and could compromise the security of those who vote-by-mail. As written, voters must include a copy of an approved form of identification with their ballot.

“I don’t really care whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, rural, suburban, or urban,” Williams said. “If you are part of Pennsylvania, understand a trainwreck is headed toward you today.”

Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, outlined the process used to apply for and count mail-in ballots cast by those in the military and explained that ballots and verification forms are kept separate. Allegations to suggest otherwise are “disingenuous,” he said.

He added: “We have the ability to make sure that your vote is still secret. It’ll count, but you will not be linked to your vote.”

However, the legislation is without an implementation plan. In prior committee meetings, Ward has said the process would be worked out with the Department of State, as well as through legislation. Whether that would happen before or after the language is presented to voters is unclear, and she did not respond to a request for comment.

The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government advocacy group, issued a statement opposing the legislation, and cited little need for stricter identification requirements. 

“We believe a thoughtful debate of possible adjustments to these rules in the context of a larger discussion around election reform should be possible,” they wrote. “But we find it deeply troubling that this proposal seeks to permanently anchor voter ID standards in the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

But before a ballot question is even presented to voters, amendments must be approved by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions — meaning that the process can take months, if not years. The earliest this amendment could reach voters for consideration is May 2023.

It’s a process that takes time and can cost millions. The costs for advertising the amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions is estimated to cost between $2-3 million, according to the Department of State.

Wednesday’s Senate vote comes one day after the GOP-controlled House passed a Republican rewrite of Pennsylvania’s election code.

House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, who has a say over election bills in the lower chamber, said that Ward’s legislation, even with amendments, isn’t enough.

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

“We’re not there,” Grove told the Capital-Star. “We think [the House bill] 1300 is a great bill. We’re hopeful that people read the bill, figure out actually what’s in it. It does great things for Pennsylvanians. Hopefully, common sense and rhetoric moves aside, and we can focus on the policies.”

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story.

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