Senate Committee throws support behind Wolf’s Secretary of State nominee

Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. (Image: Pennsylvania Senate GOP)

Pennsylvania’s top elections official got a key endorsement from a state Senate Committee on Monday, when its members voted unanimously to advance her nomination to the full chamber for consideration. 

Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose office oversees Pennsylvania’s elections and its professional licensing bureaus, fielded questions from the Senate State Government Committee for nearly an hour on Monday — the first step of a reappointment process that requires a two-thirds vote from the 50-member Senate to pass.

Her vetting came just two weeks after a Nov. 5 municipal elections where some counties reported problems with new voting equipment. 

Boockvar’s reconfirmation hearing was initially scheduled for May. 

But Gov. Tom Wolf withdrew Boockvar’s nomination because Senate Republicans wanted more time to consider it, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said Monday. 

Her position became ensnared in partisan fighting over a 2018 mandate from Wolf’s administration, which decertified voting machines across Pennsylvania and required counties to buy new, more secure models that leave paper trails of ballots. 

The wholesale replacement of Pennsylvania’s voting machines is expected to cost $150 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. An election reform bill Wolf signed last week made $90 million in funding available. 

Even though that mandate came when Boockvar’s predecessor, Pedro Cortes, was in office, its implementation has dogged the former elections lawyer since she assumed her post in January 2019.

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Critics of the mandate, mainly Republican lawmakers, say it placed an unnecessary strain on Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, which administer elections, and are on the hook for purchasing new election equipment. 

They also say the new machines generated problems across Pennsylvania during the Nov. 5 municipal elections, including reports of long wait times at polling places and alleged mishandling of paper ballots. 

Roughly two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties used new voting machines to cast ballots in the Nov. 5 election, Boockvar’s office said in a statement released on Election Day. 

During Monday’s confirmation hearing, Boockvar told lawmakers that the problems they reported earlier this month will help her office prepare counties for elections in 2020, which are bound to generate higher voter turnout than this year’s municipal races. 

“We need to provide better guidance to counties,” Boockvar told committee members Monday. 

She added that York County, which reported multiple problems on Election Day, was “exhibit A” of what can happen when precincts don’t have enough resources to administer elections, such as scanners for paper ballots. 

The State Government Committee’s 11 members voted unanimously to advance Boockvar’s nomination, but declined to give her their fullest support. 

The committee reported her nomination “without recommendation,” meaning they will not advise their fellow senators on how to vote on the confirmation.

The distinction provides a “more neutral” endorsement of Boockvar, the panel’s acting chairwoman, Sen. Kirstin Phillips-Hill, R-York, said.

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“We had a couple members of the committee who still had reservations, and we felt that this was the best way to move the nomination forward,” Phillips-Hill  said. 

But Phillips-Hill also voiced her support for Boockvar, who she says is committed to preventing election problems like the ones that emerged in the Nov. 5 election.

“She’s looked at all of the issues that I’ve brought to her attention, and we’ve been working on together how to [solve] them,” Phillips-Hill told the Capital-Star. “We come from very different places for partisan ideology, but there is consensus that disenfranchising voters is not acceptable.”

Wolf’s office welcomed the news on Monday that Boockvar’s nomination would advance to the full Senate. 

[Boockvar] has already shown great leadership in working to secure our elections and fix our outdated licensing system,” Abbott said in a statement. “We are glad to see her confirmation advance.”