High stakes for Pa. voters in governor’s race
PITTSBURGH — If this year’s election puts a Republican in the Pennsylvania governor’s office, next year’s election — and those that come after it for at least four years — may look drastically different.
Just ask Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, the state Senate’s minority leader.
He says there’s no question that if a Republican candidate wins in November and the GOP holds on to their majorities in the House and Senate, the trifecta would repeal no-excuse mail-in voting and institute some form of voter ID requirement at the polls. And forget about drop boxes, too, he added.
In most cycles, such a warning from a Democratic Party leader would be written off as election-year fearmongering, wildly inflating the views of the other side.
Accurate: But this time, it’s accurate. The candidates have said what they intend to do, polling of their party’s voters back them up, and the caucuses in Harrisburg have been ready to move past the days of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen for a long time.
All four of the Republican front-runners who participated in the first televised gubernatorial debate — state Sen. Doug Mastriano, former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. attorney Bill McSwain and businessman Dave White — say they would act to repeal Act 77 if elected. That means, unlike the elections of the past two years, voters would have to go to the polls in person or apply for a traditional absentee ballot to cast a ballot.
Act 77 was passed in 2019 with bipartisan support, and Republicans have said they were able to broker an elimination of straight-ticket voting in exchange for no-excuse mail-in balloting. Wolf said at the time that it would modernize the electoral process, remove barriers to the voting booth and make voting more convenient and secure.
All four also say they would institute voter ID requirements, meaning that to participate in person on Election Day, voters would have to bring some sort of ID instead of just signing a logbook and voting.
The changes, according to Republicans, would provide for a more secure electoral system; insiders say they anticipate immediate action if the GOP wins the governor’s race.
Sam DeMarco, a member of the Allegheny County Board of Elections and chair of the county Republican committee, said he’d put the chances at 90% or greater that Act 77 is repealed upon a GOP gubernatorial victory. Expanding access to vote is a great idea in theory, DeMarco said, but in practice, there’s an inherent “inability for us to be able to secure it.”
“If we have all three houses, then we should be able to do it,” DeMarco said. “It’s not like there’s a filibuster.”
Tactics: The state Supreme Court is currently considering a legal challenge to Act 77 after Commonwealth Court declared it unconstitutional. Justices on the high court — which has a 5-2 Democratic majority — have rejected challenges to the law in the past.
Any legislative effort to repeal Act 77 while Wolf is in office would be in vain because of his certain veto.
Mastriano has sought to get a repeal onto the ballot as a voter referendum. That would require both the House and Senate to vote in two consecutive legislative sessions to approve putting the question on the ballot. He’s cited public polling as a reason for the effort, saying Pennsylvanians have lost confidence in their elections.
A recent Franklin & Marshall College poll backs Mastriano’s assertion, but the discontent with the electoral system falls along party lines for the most part, with Republicans far more likely to say they are unsatisfied.
More than half of the registered voters surveyed by the college said they were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with how elections are conducted in the state. That percentage was 24% in August 2020, before the last presidential election.
G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University and a leading political analyst in Pennsylvania, said it’s common for primary election candidates to run on issues that are popular within their party but maybe not the overall electorate. That runs the risk of hurting their prospects in the general election, he said, but igniting the fervor of the base is important right now.
Reforms: Madonna said Republicans might draw their rhetoric back a bit after the May 17 primary, and that instead of harping — over and over — on a full repeal of Act 77, they may be more inclined to talk of the need for more incremental reforms.
A repeal of Act 77, Costa said, would make it less convenient to vote and risk disenfranchising some voters. In 2020, more than 2.5 million people voted by mail in the general election, though many used it as an alternative to going to the polls during the first year of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In a phone interview Friday, Costa used Pennsylvania’s eternally poor weather to make his point.
“If today was May 17th, you’d have a lot of people who would choose not to vote because of the conditions,” Costa said while driving in the rain. “In this case, we’ll have tens of thousands of people who would have already voted.”
DeMarco deemed Costa’s argument as political posturing and alleged that Democrats are against repealing Act 77 because it would hurt their political prospects. They’ll no longer have 50 days to try to turn out their vote, he said.
Pitching loftier goals: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the lone Democratic contender for governor, has said that if elected, he would veto any effort to eliminate or restrict mail-in voting.
Shapiro has also pitched a few loftier goals, saying he’d sign bills instituting same-day voter registration, an in-person early voting period and automatic voter registration when eligible voters over the age of 18 apply for a driver’s license or ID through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
But for that to happen, the bills would have to come to his desk from the Republican-controlled Legislature. Costa said Shapiro may be able to cobble together some “modest reform” or compromise, perhaps on voter ID, in exchange for something like same-day voter registration.
In Pennsylvania, only first-time voters at a new precinct have to show proof of ID to vote. In 35 other states, voters have to show some form of identification every time they go to the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Voting rights advocates have said photo ID requirements are burdensome and that too many people face obstacles when trying to obtain the right form of identification. Last June, Wolf vetoed GOP legislation that would have expanded voter ID requirements, saying it amounted to voter suppression.
Proponents of the bill had countered that it would have commissioned the state to produce free photo IDs for any voter who requested one.
The Republican candidates for governor have not given many specifics on what their voter ID plans would look like.
There is political will in the GOP, too, to eliminate drop boxes if they win the governor’s mansion. Their electorate agrees, with 64% of registered Republicans telling the Franklin & Marshall pollsters that they favor eliminating the use of drop boxes in elections.
Drop boxes are in use in at least 22 counties, according to The Associated Press. They allow voters to return mail-in ballots without having to mail them back or take them to county elections offices.