Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Pa. Republicans Continue to Push for Elections Overhaul

Despite having won several judicial and local elections, GOP members in at least one county continue to demand an audit of the 2020 presidential election, causing confusion and uncertainty about future elections.

(TNS) — More than a year after a contentious presidential race, Pennsylvania's election system remains a political lightning rod.

In the legislature, before courts, in local governments, and on the campaign trail, Republicans are continuing to push an election law overhaul and raise doubts about the process.

Even after the GOP this month won three of four statewide judicial races and recaptured some local offices in the Philadelphia suburbs, Republicans in at least one county demanded a "forensic audit" of the 2021 election — the same rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump and his allies to baselessly question the 2020 vote. And in Democratic-leaning Lehigh County, officials decided to count mail ballots that arrived without handwritten dates, prompting litigation and impeachment threats from Republicans.

The flurry of activity is causing confusion about how elections are supposed to work, uncertainty about what might change before next year's midterms, and ever-deepening partisan conflict.

Here's some of what's happening.

House Republicans advance sweeping legislation — and a constitutional amendment

Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and have vowed to continue passing election bills, even with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf poised to veto them.

Republicans in the state House advanced legislation this month that would require additional post-election audits, along with a bill to prohibit counties from directly receiving election funds from private groups.

They also moved a sweeping bill — one that, among other things, would require stricter voter identification, standardize and in some cases limit the use of ballot drop boxes, require signature verification of mail ballots, establish six days of in-person early voting, and provide for five days to process mail ballots before Election Day.

"We're pretty serious about this, and it's not going away," said Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), the bill's sponsor and House Republicans' point person on elections.

Pa. Republicans Are Bringing Their Election Bill Back After Gov. Tom Wolf Said He's Open To Voter ID Changes (from July 2021)

House Republicans plan to pass that bill next month, along with a proposed constitutional amendment that would, among other things, require "valid government-issued identification" to vote.

Constitutional amendments, if passed twice by the legislature, are placed on the ballot for voter approval. The governor doesn't play a role.

A Wolf spokesperson said the election bill and constitutional amendment "create unacceptable barriers to voting in Pennsylvania ... and are born out of a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 election."

Wolf is open to good-faith negotiations, spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said, but "will not support any election reforms that suppress the vote with unnecessary restrictions." He would veto Grove's bill in its current form, she said.

A Court Hears GOP Arguments Against Mail Voting

Republican state lawmakers and a county commissioner are challenging the constitutionality of Act 77, the bipartisan 2019 law that allows any voter to use mail ballots.

That law passed with strong GOP support. But many Republicans turned against it last year as Trump railed against mail voting with false fraud claims.

Republican lawsuits over Pennsylvania's mail voting law have some Democrats quietly worried

Few observers believe the state Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, would overturn Act 77. But Democrats and some good-government advocates worry about what would happen if the Commonwealth Court strikes down the law, even temporarily. That could further erode trust in elections and fuel misinformation in a highly charged political environment.

A panel of judges heard arguments last week in the two cases. The court could rule at any time.

Local Issues Flare Big

Counties run elections, and that means most issues pop up at the local level.

The mail ballot printer for Montgomery County, for example, sent 16,000 ballots with a blank back page this fall, and about 10,000 ballots that were slightly misaligned in the printing. Berks County sent 17,000 ballots with the wrong deadline printed in the Spanish-language instructions. No elections are run perfectly, but several county elections officials agreed that having multiple such errors wasn't optimal.

Some Republicans are seizing on such errors.

The Pennsylvania Primary Showed That Running Elections is Complicated — and So Is Changing Election Law (from May 2021)

In Chester County, the local GOP called for a "full forensic audit" after a series of issues, including vote counts that weren't fully uploading from the USB sticks used to transfer results from ballot scanners. Republican county commissioner Michelle Kichline said that while "irregularities will not change the outcomes of most races, many questions remain about how these problems occurred."

She voted against certifying the results on Monday. The two Democratic commissioners voted to certify.

Chester County solicitor Nicole R. Forzato said both parties were informed of problems as they arose and were consulted about and observed the fixes.

"Nobody's trying to hide it, nobody's trying to say we're perfect," Forzato said.

"This is a demonstration of why citizens should have faith in the process," she added, "because we identified the issues, we put them in the sunshine."

Impeachment Threats in Lehigh County

After the Lehigh County Board of Elections decided to count 260 mail ballots that voters didn't date, Republican leaders in the state House sent a letter demanding they reverse course or face impeachment.

State law says voters are supposed to sign and date mail ballot envelopes, which last year led to a complicated split decision from the state Supreme Court. Justice David Wecht, the deciding vote, said undated ballots should be counted in the 2020 election. But he also said he expected voters would be properly notified about the rules in the future, so undated ballots should be thrown out after 2020.

Philly elections officials reverse course and reject undated mail ballots amid impeachment threat (from June 2021)

In this year's primary, Philadelphia and other counties said they would count undated ballots. Philadelphia later reversed course after a similar impeachment threat. The Pennsylvania Department of State also told counties to reject undated ballots.

Lehigh County's decision is currently before a local court, which held a hearing Monday.

On The Campaign Trail

Just about every major Republican candidate running for governor next year has emphasized "election security" as a top priority. Many say they would repeal Act 77.

Some Republicans in the legislature want to keep mail voting but make other changes, like stricter voter ID. But many gubernatorial candidates are pushing to get rid of no-excuse mail voting altogether.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who is running to succeed the term-limited Wolf, called the law a "fiasco."

"You have millions of people who have lost faith in the integrity of our elections, and Act 77 is at the root of it," Barletta said. "When I'm governor, I'll repeal it and restore trust in our elections again."

Pennsylvania GOP activists say getting rid of Act 77 is a top priority.

"I don't think a committee meeting goes by that someone doesn't bring it up," said Vince Matteo, chairman of the GOP in Lycoming County, in north-central Pennsylvania.

The law's unpopularity with GOP voters could pose a challenge for gubernatorial candidates who supported it, including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin).

On the Democratic side, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro is campaigning for governor on protecting voting rights and accusing Republicans of backing Trump's election lies.

2020 Election Review

Senate Republicans are still trying to investigate the 2020 vote.

That partisan review picked up momentum in the fall when Corman pledged his support for it and effectively took control of an inquiry that, up until that point, had been led by Mastriano.

A Senate committee in September subpoenaed the Wolf administration for millions of voters' data, including nonpublic information such as the last four digits of Social Security numbers. Democrats and nonpartisan groups sued to block the subpoena, saying it was unlawful and violated privacy rights.

A panel of judges is set to hear the case Dec. 15.

What to know about Pennsylvania Republicans' investigation of the 2020 election

Republicans last week announced they had hired Iowa-based Envoy Sage, a consulting and research firm, to assist their review. They signed a six-month contract that will cost taxpayers $270,000.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday for the first time, Steven R. Lahr, the head of the company, said it would "have no preconceived notions" about what it would find. Citing the litigation, he said he would not "discuss the procedures or efforts that we may or may not take in the future regarding the materials requested in that subpoena."

(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Special Projects