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Pennsylvania Lawmakers Can’t Pass Simple Voting Reforms

The state legislature can't find common ground for basic reforms — even ones that county election officials say are crucial to improving their operations and have backing from members of both political parties.

(TNS) — Two years ago, lawmakers in Harrisburg approved one of the largest pieces of election reform legislation in Pennsylvania history, built on compromise and bipartisan support.

Today, the Legislature can't seem to pass the simplest of reforms — even ones that county election officials say are crucial to improving their operations and have backing from members of both political parties.

How can so much change in so little time?

A year out from a high-stakes election cycle that will include a race for U.S. Senate here, voting rights advocates, good government groups and government stakeholders say they fear that the days of compromise are over. They see few signs that the Legislature can enact reforms.

"To get that kind of omnibus legislation passed where each side sort of comes to the table with a wish list and you negotiate back and forth, you need a set of pre-existing relationships and a level of trust, and I think maybe it's that trust that's unfortunately been eroded in the last couple of years," said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the nonpartisan government reform group Committee of Seventy.

Mr. Thornburgh is a self-described "optimist" who testified at numerous hearings over the past few months on the topic of election reform. He said he always tried to bring the conversation back to real problems that election officials and voters have experienced, and urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to focus on those items before moving on to the "hypothetical."

In the end, on June 25, Republicans settled on a bill that addressed some of the big items that county officials had asked for during hearings — notably, more time to start processing ballots before Election Day and for better-adjusted deadlines for mail-in ballot applications.

But their bill, spearheaded by Rep. Seth Grove, R- York, also included provisions requiring voters to show identification in person and setting limits on drop boxes for mail-in ballot return.

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill on Wednesday, Republicans criticized him, and talks of compromise stalled — if they were ever occurring to begin with.
A more targeted approach would stand a better chance, Mr. Thornburgh said — a "rifle shot" bill that addresses some of the easiest consensus topics to start. It's like eating a 12-course meal, he said: You have to start with an appetizer.

But it's unclear whether an appetizer could even reach the table. Republicans are gearing up to bypass the governor's will and leave the issue of voter ID up to the voters by proposing a change to the Pennsylvania Constitution via ballot referendum. Democrats allege that the Republicans are trying to suppress the vote.

Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said Mr. Grove's bill was an excellent opportunity to provide something for those on both sides of the aisle. It kept Act 77 of 2019 in place and added early voting and codified drop boxes — numerous things "the typical conservative would be against." In return, he said, Republicans included voter ID and signature verification.

Mr. DeMarco said it's as if Democrats are asking, "Why didn't the GOP move forward with a clean bill of everything we want?" Asked how he squares that with the fact that county officials and voting rights advocates also want a clean bill, he said Republicans offered solutions to their problems in the Grove bill.

Now, Republicans will move forward with a ballot amendment, and Democrats might no longer get what they want, Mr. DeMarco remarked.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D- Forest Hills, said the reason the two parties can't find common ground on election reform is because of the long stretch of "unwarranted and unsubstantiated criticism of the voting process" by some members of the Legislature, the U.S. Congress and the highest levels of government.

He blamed the GOP for much of the standstill, saying that it's hard to believe voter ID is necessary when no one can prove widespread fraud.

"I would say, unequivocally, that their intention is to reduce individuals' ability to vote and disenfranchise voters by putting onerous identification markers that quite frankly are not necessary," Mr. Costa said of the GOP.

That said, Mr. Costa still talked of the need to compromise like lawmakers did on Act 77, when Democrats gave up straight-ticket voting as a deal to get vote by mail. But they also have to improve their messaging, he said.

"We can't get around the fact that right now, [ Republicans] have been able to communicate to the public in an effective way ... that there are issues with voter security," Mr. Costa said, noting he doesn't agree with the claims.

"We have to do a better job of communicating to the public and to our Republican colleagues that their actions are not warranted, educate them to the fact they're raising false allegations and false claims, and that their perceived solutions to the claims are inappropriate."

Mr. DeMarco said both parties tend to retreat to their own sides on certain topics, and that he has been straight on where he stands.

"I went on the record: I saw no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Allegheny County," said Mr. DeMarco, a member of the county board of elections. "If there had been and I saw it, I would have exposed it. At the same time, they try to portray these bills to affirm our electoral integrity as voter suppression, and that's a big lie."

To Keystone Votes state coordinator Ray Murphy, it's hard to ignore former President Donald Trump's efforts to "attack the validity" of vote by mail in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Crying foul after your party's candidate didn't win now is commonplace, he noted.

How do voting rights groups continue to operate in such a contentious atmosphere? Mr. Murphy said groups like his are often privileged because they have public opinion on their side, and even though there continues to be some disagreement along partisan lines, there's much agreement.

"Most Pennsylvania voters who are Republican, Democrat, independents — verified by multiple polls conducted in the last few years — think the system works; that where they live, work and vote, that their votes were counted actively, and have typically enjoyed some of the modernizations recently," Mr. Murphy said.

"People who use vote by mail, drop boxes, satellite election offices, who were able to experience them, agree these things were good."

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said she learned from the recent legislative scrap that it's going to take a lot of work to reach any consensus. She said her association will continue to advocate on behalf of counties and what they need to run fair, secure elections.

The association would have preferred a clean bill, she said, because counties need to make sure that "any substantive changes to the way we run elections are written well, give counties the time to properly train our election staff and poll workers, and give them the appropriate resources."

Committee of Seventy's Mr. Thornburgh said he believes there are enough legislators in Harrisburg who can "keep at bay the howling of the partisan wolves" to hammer out a deal with members across the aisle. He said the committee hearings were exhaustive, but when it came time to put it anything into a bill, both sides retreated to their caucuses.

"I think Chairman Grove was really intent on doing a complete overhaul of the election code," Mr. Thornburgh said. "It may just not be the right time to do that."

(c)2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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