After initial voting changes are vetoed, Pa. GOP lawmakers turn to piecemeal approach

Gillian Mcgoldrick
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

HARRISBURG — When Pennsylvania House Republicans proposed sweeping changes last year to the state's 2019 election law, Rep. Seth Grove warned Gov. Tom Wolf that it would be the best deal he'd see come across his desk.

The 150-page bill included increased poll worker pay, millions in funds for counties to use electronic poll books and the much-awaited allowance for counties to pre-canvass ballots ahead of Election Day. To the concern of Democrats and civil rights groups, the legislation created a voter ID requirement, required more time to register to vote and limited mail-in voting. Wolf vetoed the measure.

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Now, GOP lawmakers have taken a new approach to try to reform and roll back parts of the state's election law, Act 77 of 2019. Last week, the state Senate passed legislation along party lines to eliminate ballot drop box locations. It's the start of a piecemeal approach by GOP lawmakers to try and reform parts of the state's voter expansion they say threaten the safety and security of the state's elections.

Grove, R-Dover Township, chairs the House State Government committee that controls what election legislation gets considered and has been the main Republican fixture on election bills. In an interview last week, Grove said it's likely that the majority of his GOP colleagues have become more focused on rolling back provisions of Act 77 and limiting voter access than they were when he introduced his sweeping House Bill 1300 last summer.

"I said it in June, it's the best deal the governor is going to get, and it's coming to fruition," Grove said. "Things are going to get unwound and unraveled. ... Where the Senate is at with their votes, I don't know if you ever get back to 1300."

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.

For example, the Senate's vote to eliminate drop boxes is significantly different from what they had approved as part of Grove's House Bill 1300 last year. That bill allowed counties to operate a ballot drop box, and allowed voters to return the ballot of another person from their household.

Elizabeth Rementer, Wolf's spokesperson, said in an email that this bill was "not a starting point for finding common ground" and that Wolf was proud to veto it.

"Although its sponsors have stated that House Bill 1300 was the best bill he could expect out of their caucuses, the governor will not agree to a bill that increases restrictions on popular voting options, including limiting drop boxes, making it much more difficult to vote by mail, and limiting early voting," Rementer added.

While lawmakers will attempt to make fixes to the state election code, Grove said he won't have his committee consider any legislation about mail-in voting. More than a dozen House Republicans — including Reps. Timothy Bonner, R-Mercer; Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence; Bob Brooks, R-Westmoreland; and Bud Cook, R-Fayette — filed a lawsuit last year, arguing that the state's vote-by-mail provisions are unconstitutional. The Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the Republicans' argument, but the decision has been temporarily postponed awaiting appeal to the state Supreme Court.

This means county elections officials holding any hope that the Legislature will make their long-requested changes to the law — allow them to pre-canvass mail ballots to be counted on Election Day and lengthen the application deadline for a mail ballot — likely will need to wait another year until there's a new governor and General Assembly.

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What's more, Pennsylvania will go through another major election with delays in reporting mail-in ballot results as seen in the November 2020 election, now with the most-watched U.S. Senate race in the country and an important gubernatorial election.

"All of this stuff would've been settled in a non-major election year. Now we're in another major, major election year, particularly in Pennsylvania, with complete uncertainty," Grove added. "It all stems back to HB 1300. That is the complete lynchpin of where we're at right now."

Lawmakers and Wolf haven't come to the negotiating table on election reform in more than a year, with both groups pointing the finger at the other for ending negotiations. Both say they're still willing to restart "good faith" negotiations at any point.

But until then, Pennsylvania voters can expect to see the Legislature and Wolf volleying legislation back and forth at one another over the next three months: the GOP-controlled Legislature passing bills to "secure" the state's election, and Wolf vetoing the proposals due to concerns that they'll limit voter access.