OP-ED: What I learned from election reform

State Sen. Mike Folmer
48th District
Senator Mike Folmer speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Long before I became chair of the Senate State Government Committee, I worked to reform election laws. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to chair the Committee.

First adopted in 1937, there have not been many substantial changes to the Pennsylvania Election Code over the years. I now better understand why.

Many advocates say they want changes. They love press conferences and rallies — yelling and chanting are especially popular. But, when it’s time to actually vote on bills, they’re too often hard to find. I guess it’s easier to criticize — especially after legislation begins to move.

Then, there’s the media. They, too, belittle elected officials, claiming various changes won’t be voted for one (negative) reason or another. When bills move, they are also hard to find.

The Senate State Government Committee held hours of hearings on voting machines and election reforms — little or no media coverage.  Meanwhile, there were a host of stories on issues where there was no action — i.e., minimum wage. While I don’t subscribe to so-called “fake news” I do believe there’s a difference between reporting the news and trying to make news.

Most discouraging in trying to advance meaningful reforms are differences between committee and floor votes. I try to ensure every bill referred to the State Government Committee is given due consideration. Time doesn’t always allow for all of them to be deliberated. It takes considerable effort to ensure proper public vetting: getting people to testify, listening carefully to all sides, and drafting amendments in an effort to reach consensus.

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Senate State Government Committee hearings tend to be long. We want to give those appearing before the committee ample time to be heard. We want committee members to ask as many questions as they would like. We encourage and review written testimony from any interested party.

By the time we schedule a bill for a vote, everyone’s questions should have been asked and they should have gotten some kind of answer. Even when there isn’t broad agreement, we continue to work to find common ground on issues.

I’m proud to say we’ve often reached consensus on a host of issues. Despite our many successes, election reforms remain an elusive goal. While bills are reported out of committee — often unanimously — we’re now seeing bipartisan “yes” votes turning into partisan “no” votes.

Two examples demonstrate this disappointment. The first are reforms to Pennsylvania’s redistricting process. When voted out of committee last session, our plan was hailed as major reform among both committee members and many interest groups. However, when time ran out and the plan had to be reintroduced this year, the praise turned into criticism — even derision.

The bill that was reintroduced used the same language as the bill that was previously praised. It was bipartisan and we thought it would lead to continued discussions to reform Pennsylvania’s redistricting process. Unfortunately, it didn’t. A previously unanimous bill has been slowed by partisan divide and it has languished on the Senate calendar.

Similarly, legislation to eliminate straight-party voting has met a similar fate.  Unanimously reported from committee, our media friends first ignored, focusing on Open Primaries. Then, their focus quickly changed as big political names from Washington, D.C., started making calls in opposition. A proposal with not one negative vote from committee and introduced by a Democratic colleague magically became a Republican electoral threat.

I remain committed to meaningful reform — real reform, not blue reform or red reform, purple reform. However, I now better understand why no one previously has tried to advance election reforms. It’s difficult and it’s painful.

— State Sen. Mike Folmer is a Republican representing the 48th Senate District in the Pennsylvania State Legislature.