Senate panel proceeds with election bill hearing despite Department of State absence

‘We knew that members of the administration were not going to be participating in the hearing today,’ Sen. Maria Collett, said, addressing Republicans on the Senate State Government Committee.

By: - October 5, 2021 3:34 pm

Senate State Government Committee Chairman David Argall, R-Schuylkill, offers remarks during a hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Screenshot)

It wasn’t a surprise when the Department of State was a no-show at a Senate hearing to discuss election reform, but that didn’t stop some lawmakers from traveling to Harrisburg on a non-session day to proceed with the meeting anyway.

The Senate State Government Committee met for 25 minutes on Tuesday. The 11-member panel planned on hearing feedback from the Department of State on a bipartisan election reform bill co-sponsored by committee chairman Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, the panel’s ranking Democrat.

However, acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid canceled plans to attend. Her absence prompted Republican lawmakers to outline their frustrations with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration to a mostly empty room.

Degraffenreid appeared before the same Senate panel in August to testify about Pennsylvania’s risk-limiting audit pilot, which used a statistical sampling of ballots to confirm election results and detect possible interference.

Argall said the department, which has election oversight, provided written comments and offered to respond to questions submitted by the committee.

“Today is another disappointing day from an administration who once touted that a core pillar of its administration is government that works,” Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, said to an empty hearing room. “It’s hard to work when you don’t show up.”

Argall and Street’s 11-page bill allows for mail-in ballot pre-canvassing at least three days before an election. The proposal also pushes back the deadline to receive applications for mail-in ballots from one week to two weeks before an election. It also includes guidance for mail-in ballot tracking through a barcode system, dropbox security, and live streams for the counting process.

Wolf’s office told the Capital-Star that he does not support the bill, citing its proposed changes to permanent mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes. On Tuesday, Street said staff is working to amend the bill to address written feedback from the administration and county elections officials.

“We have come together, although I have reservations with the whole idea of dropboxes and some things with the way pre-canvassing is set up,” Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, who attended the hearing in-person, said. “We’ve shown that both the Democrats and Republicans in this legislative body have the ability to come together and start working on the process. The executive branch wants to have some say in it, but they’re unwilling participants as this empty chair is evidence.”

Dush, who is leading an investigation into the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections, added: “It’s beyond disrespectful. It’s contemptuous towards the people.”

Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, attended Tuesday’s meeting in-person and expressed similar frustrations to his Republican colleagues. Argall said the panel could reconvene on Wednesday if Degraffenreid decides to participate.

Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, called comments made by her Republican colleagues “melodramatic” and “misleading.” She noted that committee members knew Degraffenreid was not planning to participate and urged lawmakers to move away from questions about the 2020 election and past Department of State guidance.

“The purported agenda for today was to discuss this bipartisan piece of legislation that we’re trying to get passed — not to question the secretary or the administration again on things that have already been ruled on,” she said.

Collett added: “We knew that members of the administration were not going to be participating in the hearing today. Yet, I see many of my colleagues have traveled to Harrisburg to sit in an empty room and participate in political theater. And I wonder, and I hope that the people of Pennsylvania are paying attention to how many of those senators are collecting a per diem for this attendance — taxpayer per diem money.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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