(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Faced with veto threats at every turn from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, legislative Republicans are embracing their inner populists by looking to a new tool to pass their priorities: constitutional amendments
The process takes time. The Legislature must first approve amendments two sessions in a row in identical form. Then, voters can vote yes or no in a referendum. That means the process can take, at minimum, many months, if not years.
But for Republicans in Harrisburg, it’s the only way to avoid the Wolf in the near term, until the term-limited governor leaves office in 2022. Unlike traditional bills, Wolf cannot veto or block an amendment.
Republicans used this tool to put two referenda on the May primary ballot that limit Wolf and future governor’s emergency powers last month. Both passed by slim margins, but the win has led Republicans to look to the future.
“That victory certainly has caused many of us to think that if we’re going to enact a policy … the constitutional amendment is certainly a way to get it done and avoid having to deal with a liberal governor that will not sign what people are calling for,” state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, told the Capital-Star.
Nowhere is this newfound love of permanent changes to the commonwealth’s governing document clearer than in the fight over Pennsylvania’s election law.
It starts with Act 77, passed in 2019 with near unanimous support from legislative Republicans and only token backing from legislative Democrats. The bill eliminated straight-ticket voting, then a GOP priority, in exchange for approval of no-excuse mail-in ballots.
Democrats worried ending straight-ticket voting would increase wait times in majority-minority voting districts. But many Republicans would come to regret their vote in 2020, when rulings by the state Supreme Court disallowed signature verification of mail-in ballots.
The court also allowed, for that year’s election only, for ballots arriving up to three days late to count. Combined, these rulings — plus former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of fraud — have animated Republicans’ push for changes to election law this year.
A finished product release this week, from House State Government Committee Chairman Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, would broadly rewrite and modernize state election law; by increasing restrictions on ballot drop off boxes; decreasing the amount of time voters have to register to vote and request mail-in ballots; and requiring Pennsylvania’s to show ID every time they vote. Current law only requires voters to show ID when voting for the first time at a precinct.
The latter issue is highly sought by Republicans and their base. But it faces distinct political and legal challenges.
First, Wolf has been clear he won’t sign any bill with voter ID.
“Instead of pandering to the conspiracists and trying to silence the voices of Pennsylvanians, in the near term we should be working on a bipartisan basis to address a few limited priorities upon which we can agree,” Wolf said in a Thursday letter to Grove on his bill.
Time for counties to process mail-in ballots before Election Day and funding for new technology was among their shared priorities. Voter ID was not.
Second, state courts ruled voter ID unconstitutional in 2014, after the Republican Legislature approved such a law in 2012.
With this in mind, House Republicans interviewed by the Capital-Star backed Grove’s proposal.
“I spend a lot of time talking to constituents and grassroots groups,” added state Rep. Mike Jones, R-York. “They would love to get rid of mail-in voting. If you assume that’s not going to happen, this is a reasonable compromise.”
And that’s also where constitutional amendments come into play. Such a legislative maneuver would neatly avoid both Wolf’s veto pen and the Supreme Court’s judgment.
Legislation has already been introduced in the House and Senate to do so, and the Senate advanced its election reform proposal out of committee this week. It passed in a party line 7-4 vote.
“This is downright scary,” state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said during the committee vote. “This is about one’s sanctity of their vote, and it doesn’t appear that parties that are involved understand this issue.”
Williams added: “But be very clear, the public will.”
Polling has indicated the public will on voter ID requirements, and it doesn’t match what Democrats might hope. A Franklin and Marshall College poll released this week found that almost three in four Pennsylvanians supported voter ID laws.
Studies have found that such Black and brown voters are less likely to have ID, but it’s unclear if such laws impact minority voters’ turnout.
Some Republicans are even taking the amendment tactic further than implementing stricter voter verification. Two state senators, including noted Trump-ally Sen. Doug Mastrinao, R-Franklin, floated a “statewide ballot measure” to repeal no-excuse mail-in ballots in late April.
“It is our view that the people of Pennsylvania should have the final say in how Pennsylvania conducts future elections,” a memo on the bill reads. Final language for the proposal has not yet been introduced.
Such was the view at a Capitol rally of Trump supporters Wednesday to call for a new, legislative review of the 2020 presidential election.
Lisa Rae Carey, a 55-year-old Westmoreland County resident, spoke at the rally and called for the repeal of Act 77.
She wanted Republicans legislative leaders to focus more on a bottom up instead of top down approach to governing in which they listened to the people, she told the Capital-Star. And Carey had looked over Grove’s bill, and wasn’t too impressed.
“Even with ID, we don’t want no-excuse absentee mail in ballots. And I need a vote on that,” Carey told the Capital-Star.
She wants the amendment referendum because lawmakers “keep changing the law without our approval. That’s why I compare it to totalitarianism.”
If her fellow Pennsylvanians will follow her to repeal widespread mail-in voting is unclear.
According to Franklin and Marshall’s polling, Pennsylvanians are evenly split on repealing no-excuse absentee ballots, with 45 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.
Capital-Star Staff Reporter Marley Parish contributed to this story.
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