Facing pressure from Trump and constituents, Pa. GOP aims to limit expanded voting

Some proposals would completely get rid of no-excuse absentee voting; other plans would clarify rules around how mail ballots can be submitted and counted.

Voters wait in line to casts their ballot in the Pennsylvania primary

Voters, wearing protective face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus, stand at a distance from each other as they wait in line to casts their ballot in the Pennsylvania primary in Philadelphia, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republicans are considering rolling back a major expansion to Pennsylvania’s voting laws — a move motivated at least in part by relentless pressure from President Donald Trump and constituents who support him.

The legislature passed the landmark expansion, Act 77, a little over a year ago with nearunanimous GOP support. It allowed no-excuse mail voting in the commonwealth for the first time in the 2020 primary and general election.

In the nearly two months since Trump lost Pennsylvania and the election, the president has taken to directly calling Republican lawmakers in states he lost and urging them to help overturn the results.

Staff for Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) confirmed he received two of those personal calls in early December. Republican Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward told the New York Times that Trump had called her, too.

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Mike Straub, a spokesman for Cutler, described the conversation as “much more a history lesson about what happened in Pennsylvania law” than a direct appeal by the president for lawmakers to change Pennsylvania’s election rules.

But Straub acknowledged that in the months since the election, as Trump’s attorneys have filed dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits aimed at getting the results overturned, baseless allegations of widespread election fraud have been “clearly top-of-mind for many, many members [of the House GOP Caucus].”

In December, Republican members of the House and Senate filed more than dozen memos proposing election law updates. Two proposals from House members would completely get rid of no-excuse absentee voting; other plans would clarify rules around how mail ballots can be submitted and counted.

Straub says these efforts reflect that members are eager to show constituents they’re taking action on perceived security issues.

“I think their actions have shown that,” Straub said.

At least a few Republicans in the legislature have grown frustrated by their colleagues’ commitment to addressing fraud allegations — which Trump’s lawyers repeatedly failed to prove in court.

“They want to go to war,” State Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) said of some of his fellow Republicans.

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Yaw recently published a long statement making it clear that while he voted for Trump twice and supported his candidacy, he sees no evidence of widespread fraud and is dismayed that “misinformed” people still believe the president won the election.

Like many General Assembly members, Yaw has been inundated with messages from constituents who want Pennsylvania’s election results overturned.

He discounts many of them, considering them to be based on bad information people probably found on social media. But he said other lawmakers might be getting spooked.

“I don’t know whether the people really believe it, or whether they’re following what they think their constituents are saying,” he said in an interview. “Some of the constituents are … very threatening, actually: ‘You either do it my way or it’s the last time you’ll ever get elected.’”

With President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory secure, tweaks to the state election code can be a way for lawmakers to appease frustrated constituents.

In a memo calling for the state to completely scrap no-excuse mail voting, Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair), explained his rationale for reversing course on Act 77. “When the legislature planned to implement mail-in voting, no one could have imagined the gross overstepping of the [Wolf] administration,” he wrote.

Many in the GOP criticize Wolf, his Department of State, and the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court for interpreting Act 77 more broadly than Republicans intended — for instance, allowing counties to tally ballots with missing dates or misplaced signatures, and giving voters a three-day extension to turn in ballots due to mail delays.

Wolf dismissed these claims, which included calls for DOS Secretary Kathy Boockvar to resign after the election, as attempts “to undermine confidence in the results of the election.”

“We should all denounce them for the undemocratic actions they are,” he said.

Short of a full reversal, one planned package of GOP-led bills would implement new security measures, like unique barcodes on ballots. It would also tighten Act 77 to formally ban several practices that Pennsylvania courts ruled were permissible in the 2020 election: the executive and judicial branches of government wouldn’t be able to give voters extra time to submit ballots; election officials would be barred from counting ballots with misplaced or incomplete signatures; and they couldn’t implement ballot drop boxes and temporary satellite election offices.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre), who has significant power over which bills the chamber considers, has also pitched a new “Special Committee on Election Integrity” — a bipartisan panel that he says will examine election security and rules. He noted in his memo that lawmakers have heard from “thousands of constituents” concerned about the election, and pledged that the caucus will address lawmakers’ bills on the subject.

One lawmaker hoping for specific reforms is State Sen. Pat Stefano (R-Fayette). He supported the Act 77 expansions, and as far as he’s concerned, repealing no-excuse mail voting is a non-starter because “the horse is out of the barn.”

Instead, he wants to get rid of a portion of the act that lets voters sign up to automatically receive a mail ballot application for every election. He thinks people signed up by accident, got confused, and tried to vote the wrong way.

“The intention was noble, but the execution was poor and the results were horrible,” he said — referring to the striking number of duplicate ballot applications from confused voters Pennsylvania had to reject.

Like many legislative Republicans, Stefano was dismayed by court rulings that allowed remote drop boxes and looser mail ballot deadlines in light of widespread, pandemic-induced postal service delays, and wants those provisions barred.

But like Yaw, he thinks some of his colleagues have been pushed by constituents who are taking increasingly extreme positions. That, he said, is “what social media does. The algorithms drive people to see things they like, which makes them believe things. Doesn’t mean it’s true.”

But, he added, that doesn’t take away the obligations that politicians feel in a representative democracy.

“We are elected by our constituents in the district. So if a large group of them is asking for something, we will respond,” he said. “That’s why you’ll see … my colleagues from different districts submitting different ideas. I think that’s wonderful.”

Across the political aisle, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), says he’s been watching with concern as Republicans file their memos for the new session.

“I think [these GOP proposals are] in response to the unfounded claims beginning at the top, with our president,” he said. “I believe they feel a need to speak to their base of voters that they’re taking steps to try to address what they’re raising as concerns. It’s all meritless though.”

Chester Country election workers check ballots one last time before sending them to be scanned and counted in the West Chester University gym.
Chester County election workers check ballots one last time before sending them to be scanned and counted in the West Chester University gym. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Democrats have filed a number of their own Act 77 tweaks.

Like the GOP delegation, they largely want to get rid of ambiguities that have arisen in the law. They’ve circulated legislation that would make clear that mail ballots can be counted if they’re received up to three days after Election Day. Democrats also want to let counties tally early ballots as they come in, enact in-person early voting and allow same-day voter registration through Election Day.

Democrats in the House and Senate don’t have much power to override Republicans or push their own election law priorities. But they do have a bulwark in Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has two years left in his final term and has made clear he won’t sign off on any major Act 77 rollbacks.

In a statement, a spokeswoman noted that turnout in the Nov. 3 election “exceeded turnout in every presidential election since at least 1960, with more than 6.9 million Pennsylvanians voting by mail ballot or in person at the polls.”

The governor, she said, “does not support, and would veto, any effort by the General Assembly to make it more difficult for eligible voters to exercise their right to vote.”

Khalif Ali, the executive director of the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause PA, said he’s already preparing for some fraught months as lawmakers hash out their differences.

Common Cause has supported Act 77 since its inception, but Ali says it’s not flawless. He too would like to see parts of the law clarified.

He errs on the side of making it easier to vote — he prefers drop boxes to be made permanent, for instance, and thinks the state could offer more education on annual mail-voting options, instead of getting rid of Act 77’s provision to automatically send out ballots.

“There’s no question that the changes in Act 77 primarily facilitated [2020’s] unprecedented turnout,” he said.

He added that despite these points of contention, there’s plenty of room for negotiation between Republicans and Democrats. But there needs to be common ground for talks to be fruitful, and he thinks Trump — from his fraud claims to his personal calls to lawmakers — has made good-faith compromises harder to reach.

“Democracy is becoming a nuisance, is becoming an irritant to individuals and parties trying to achieve a particular outcome,” he said. “Democracy is not a nuisance.”

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