GOP’s major election overhaul advances in Pa. House as Democrats call it a ‘farce’

The bill — dubbed the Voting Rights Protection Act — includes stricter voter ID, signature verification requirements, and limits on drop boxes.

A voter signs in at a polling location, separated by a plastic partition

The Voting Rights Protection Act includes stricter voter ID, signature verification requirements, and limits on drop boxes. (Jessica Griffin/Philadelphia Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Pennsylvania Republicans in the state House advanced their proposed election overhaul legislation Tuesday over the strong objections of Democrats, who called it an attack on voting rights.

With the same partisan acrimony that has marked voting issues in Harrisburg since before the 2020 election, lawmakers in the House State Government Committee took turns lambasting and applauding House Bill 1300 — dubbed the Voting Rights Protection Act — a 150-page omnibus bill that includes stricter voter ID rules, signature verification requirements for mail ballots, and limits on drop boxes.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The bill, which also includes a proposal for early in-person voting starting in 2025, was approved along party lines and now heads to the full House floor for a vote. It would have to also pass the state Senate and get the approval of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to go into effect. But Wolf has made clear he opposes the voter ID requirements and would almost certainly veto the bill in its current form.

“You have the same people who have been stoking the fire that we’re seeing in our democratic process who now want to come and act like they’re the firefighters,” said State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia), who called the legislation “artisanal voter suppression.”

Republicans say the bill is the a result of 10 investigative hearings held earlier this year that included testimony from experts, advocates, and county election officials who identified problems with the state’s current Election Code, which got a major overhaul in 2019 when the General Assembly instituted no-excuse mail voting.

“The Voting Rights Protection Act is a comprehensive bill which addresses the multitude of issues we uncovered during the committee’s extensive hearings,” said State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the committee and author of the bill. He said the legislation balances access and security “to ensure every legal voter can and has access to voting,” while ensuring others “cannot manipulate our election system.”

Democrats on the committee, who weren’t involved in the bill’s drafting, dismissed it as a GOP ploy to perpetuate the false claims former President Donald Trump and his conservative allies spread around the 2020 election.

“This bill is another step in the march to destroy democracy,” Minority Chair Margo Davidson (D., Delaware) said. “As if the bloody and deadly coup attempt on Jan. 6 was not enough, now the losers of the 2020 national election want to legislate insurrection.”

Davidson said the bill included only select policies from the hearings, accusing Republicans of using the hearings as cover for advancing their ideas.

“House Bill 1300 is a farce. The hearings were a farce. There were a few good things that came out of the hearings, but of those good things, I don’t see any of them in House Bill 1300,” she said. “So that means the hearings were just an excuse for the gerrymandered Republican majority to go ahead and do what they wanted to do anyway.”

Republicans took turns praising various parts of the bill, including a provision that creates a Bureau of Election Audits and one that allows bipartisan teams to go to nursing homes to help residents cast absentee or mail ballots.

The bill does include two proposals county election officials specifically asked for: the ability to process and count mail ballots several days before Election Day, and moving registration and mail ballot application deadlines.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The legislation’s advance through committee was all but guaranteed, as it was written by Grove and co-sponsored by most of the Republicans on the panel. House leadership has backed Grove throughout the process, and he said at a news conference Monday that he expects the bill to move quickly.

Still, the proposal’s future remains in question.

Republicans will have to navigate complicated intra-party dynamics, as some of the most conservative members support far more restrictive policies, with some calling for the wholesale repeal of mail voting.

Wolf has said he will veto legislation that suppresses votes and that he is specifically opposed to tightening voter ID rules. His office last week called the bill “an extremist proposal” within hours of its introduction and said Republicans “want to create new barriers to voting and silence the voices of Pennsylvanians.”

There is a way for GOP lawmakers to avoid Wolf altogether: a constitutional amendment.

The Senate State Government Committee, in a party-line vote Tuesday, advanced a constitutional amendment to require voter ID each time a person votes by mail or in person. The process requires lawmakers in both chambers to pass identical proposals during two consecutive sessions, meaning the earliest voters could see the question is 2023.

The GOP-controlled legislature enacted one of the country’s strictest photo ID requirements in 2012, but a court struck it down before it took effect. Currently, voters only have to show ID if they are voting for the first time in a precinct.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal