Grove writes ambitious GOP proposal to change Pa. election law

The Associated Press
A line forms in front the York County Administrative Center with voters waiting to drop off their election ballots at the center's ballot collection box Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

HARRISBURG — An ambitious Republican proposal to revamp Pennsylvania election law was unveiled Thursday, a 149-page bill that would change deadlines, adopt new rules for early voting, alter mail-in ballot procedures and mandate IDs for all in-person voters.

The measure produced by House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, is likely to encounter severe pushback from Democrats in a state where both parties are competitive in statewide races.

Although Pennsylvania's closely watched 2020 election was carried out smoothly, many Republicans have called for election-law changes in the wake of former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of widespread voting fraud.

"This is not a view of the Republicans or the Democrats," said Grove, whose committee conducted hearings on the topic this spring. "This is a view of what we heard through 10 extensive hearings from all sides. So we wanted to build a law or bill or proposal that reflected what we heard and what we saw."

The bill was introduced by Grove and House Republican leaders with just three weeks left before lawmakers are due to wrap up business and head home for the summer.

The detailed, complicated legislation will need approval by majorities of both Republican-majority chambers as well as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's signature to become law.

As chair of the State Government Committee, Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) will serve as the gatekeeper for all proposed election changes in the House.

The state's counties, which run the nuts and bolts of elections, have urged lawmakers to pass just  two specific changes to mail-in ballot applications and counting procedures by the end of June. They have said those changes, to allow the counting of mail-in ballots before Election Day and to push back the deadline for applying for an absentee ballot, will fix most of their election administration headaches in time for the Nov. 2 general election.

Grove's bill was not negotiated with legislative Democrats or Wolf, leaving it to GOP leaders to hammer out an agreement in the coming weeks amid a busy period of final state budget negotiations. 

The legislation would provide new restrictions on drop box locations for mail-in ballots, improve access to polling places for voters with disabilities and let counties begin to start counting mail-in ballots five days before Election Day.

The deadline to register to vote would change from 15 days to 30 days prior to an election, as had been the case before a 2019 law change. Mail-in ballots would have to be requested 15 days before Election Day.

Drop boxes for mail-in ballots would only be allowed for seven days before an election, and during the hours of 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Counties would have to have at least one drop-box site and could add one for each 100,000 people who live in the county. They would have to be monitored by election inspectors from each major political party.

Early voting in person would be permitted starting in 2025. 

The proposal includes rules for fixing problems on mail-in ballots envelopes, such as lack of signatures or dates. It would put in place new rules for how lists of registered voters are maintained.

Grove's bill would also require audits of voting results and establish a Bureau of Election Audits in the state auditor general's office with subpoena power to complete multiple audits, including "result-confirming audits" that will be due on the third Friday after every vote.

Hundreds wait in line to vote at Northeastern Middle School, Tuesday, November 3, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

Counties would have to issue "scannable and durable" voter registration cards that those voting in-person would be required to show.

The bill would also constrain the Department of State's guidance to counties regarding election procedures, limiting the agency to explicit duties regarding elections that are outlined in state law.

It would ban counties from accepting private donations aimed to help them run elections, as occurred last year. Any such donations would have to be distributed by the Department of State and be available to all counties. 

The bill would end the current practice of letting people sign up to permanently receive mail-in ballots. Instead, voters would have to request one for each election.

It also boosts the fines for a variety of election law violations and raises the pay for judges of the election from the the current range of $75-$200 to $175-$300.

Grove's committee is scheduled to take up the bill on Tuesday.