Wolf borrows $90 million against economic development dollars to fund voting machines

Gov. Tom Wolf (Flickr)

Just five days after vetoing a bill that tied a host of voting reforms to $90 million in voting machine funding, Gov. Tom Wolf took executive action Tuesday to get the funding anyway — raising threats of legal action from Republican legislators.

Wolf ordered a $90 million bond issue by the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority that’ll cover 60 percent of the costs incurred by Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to purchase new voting machines.

On Tuesday, Wolf said the sudden, unilateral move — just 24 hours after he hinted of taking some sort of executive action — was meant to be a show of good faith that he is still willing to negotiate for a solution.

“What I wanted to do was we’re not going to test the patience of the counties. Here is something concrete…that we can move forward with, I think,” Wolf said. “If there is something the Legislature wants to do they think is better, I’m all ears.”

But regardless of Wolf’s intentions, the move drew labels of everything from executive overreach to much worse among General Assembly Republicans.

“The governor’s executive actions risk the good relationship that he has cultivated with the General Assembly over the last couple of months,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York,  said in a statement. “So far, the governor has not stated his legal authority to bond $90 million without legislative approval. The House is currently reviewing all of its legal options to respond to this.”

Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate GOP Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, added that the Senate will “review his actions to see if he can legally act on his own.”

Since last winter, Pennsylvania’s voting infrastructure has been a political football between Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

In February, Wolf announced that counties must acquire new voting machines that provide a paper record for audits. Counties have until the 2020 primaries for counties to acquire the machines.

Days after Wolf veto, Bucks County Rep. DiGirolamo floats plan to help counties pay for new voting machines

A legal settlement with 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein then locked in the changes, blunting GOP efforts to invalidate the change. The high cost of the switch — estimated to be more than $100 million — and the use of executive authority bothered Republican lawmakers.

After asking for funding throughout this year’s budget debate, Wolf was presented with a bill that borrowed $90 million to fund new voting machines. It also made a number of changes to Pennsylvania election law.

They included changes to the state’s restrictive absentee ballot schedule, as well as a controversial proposal to eliminate straight-party voting in the commonwealth. Supporters of the latter said it was a good-government reform to break party power, but opponents compared it to voter suppression.

Wolf vetoed the bill last Friday. Republicans portrayed the rejection as politically motivated and blamed any county funding shortfalls on the governor.

The unilateral borrowing echoes a similar maneuver from 2017, when Wolf — left with a $300 million budget hole by legislative Republicans — borrowed $200 million off of the lease for the state Farm Show complex to fill the gap.

At the moment, 30 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties still must replace their voting machines. The state’s counties as a whole expressed support for the move.

“Our counties appreciate the governor finding a way forward that recognizes both the county need for funding assistance as well as the broad funding support we had in the General Assembly,” Kathi Cozzone, president of the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “There are few higher priorities for counties than the safe, accessible and secure administration of elections, and we are truly grateful for the support and assistance we will be receiving as we move to the next generation of voting systems.”

Meanwhile, Keystone Votes, a coalition of over 50 advocacy groups that push for updates to the state electoral system, applauded the bond issue, saying that “voters deserve safe, secure, modern elections. Period.”

“That’s what this bond is all about — enhancing the integrity of our election system and reaffirming voters’ faith that when they cast a vote, it will be  counted, and counted accurately,” Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, said in a statement. “Next year’s presidential election is simply too critical for there to be any doubt about the integrity of our election system.”

While the bonds would address funding, many other election reforms remain as open questions — such as the changes to absentee ballot laws.

Currently, Pennsylvanians must get their ballot to their local board of elections by 5 p.m. the Friday before Election Day to count. The rule is among the most stringent in the country and has attracted a lawsuit from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under the bill Wolf vetoed, a voter’s ballot would only need to be postmarked by 5 p.m. the Friday before Election Day.

While seemingly solving the funding question may have ended a sense of urgency, Wolf was adamant he wanted to see more done to change how Pennsylvania votes.

“I’m not sure why those two things are connected,” he said of funding and electoral reform. “Voting machines stand by themselves. They need $90 million. I think Pennsylvania would benefit by making voting easier and making the voting booth more accessible. But I’m not sure why we need to conflate those two things.”

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