No bipartisan fix to Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting in sight

In this July 7, 2020 photo a woman drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in Hackensack, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In this July 7, 2020 photo a woman drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in Hackensack, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

A bipartisan fix to glitches in Pennsylvania’s new mail-in voting law remained just a glimmer Tuesday ahead of November’s presidential election, as Republican state Senate leaders introduced legislation that Democrats quickly opposed as restricting access to voting.

The proposal comes against a backdrop of President Donald Trump telling Republican National Convention delegates Monday that he’ll only lose if the election is “rigged,” criticizing mail-in voting as a “scam” and suing in federal court to undo certain vote-counting, collection and observation practices in Pennsylvania.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said the bill was not the product of negotiations with his office and that he had not read it.

“If there’s some things that I think restrict access to the polls, or make it less safe, then I think we have some more conversations,” Wolf said when asked about it at an unrelated news conference. “But it’s the first pass and I certainly take it very seriously.”

Other Democrats had read it.

“There are challenges with the bill, because it appears to do more to restrict access to voting than expanding it,” said Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, who is the state Democratic Party’s vice chairman.

Time for an agreement is ticking down: mail-in ballots could become available by mid-September and lawmakers say they want legislation on Wolf’s desk by then to give counties time to adjust before the Nov. 3 election.

Courts also could settle some of these issues.

The pandemic has fueled interest in voting by mail to avoid any potential exposure by voting in-person, and the June 2 primary exposed glitches in a first test of Pennsylvania’s new mail-in voting law.

County election officials are now bracing to handle more than 3 million ballots by mail this fall, more than 10 times the amount in 2016’s presidential election.

With Pennsylvania shaping up as a premier presidential battleground, the Republicans’ legislation generally aligns with the aims of Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party.

The bill also acknowledges the top request from counties: it allows them to start processing mail-in ballots three days before Election Day to speed up vote-counting amid concerns that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania.

“This bill will go a long way toward providing additional confidence in our election process and the results by taking steps needed to increase election access, accountability and security,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in a statement.

Democrats, however, want to give counties more time to process mail-in ballots, as many as 21 days before the election.

The Republican legislation, meanwhile, shortens the time period in which to request a mail-in ballot, from a week before the election to 15 days before, after thousands of mailed-in ballots arrived after polls closed in the primary.

Democrats instead want to extend the deadline to count mailed-in ballots to three days after the election, citing concerns over slower postal service.

Shortening the deadline to request a mail-in ballot will further limit people from voting by mail, say if they decide to register to vote or if the virus flares up just before the election, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said.

“Now they’re locked out: they don’t want to go to a polling place and they can’t get a mail-in ballot,” Costa said.

It also limits the locations where voters can deliver mail-in ballots by hand to a county courthouse, permanent election offices and polling places.

Democrats oppose that provisions, too.

In Philadelphia and some southeastern Pennsylvania counties where Trump lost badly in 2016, election officials are planning to create satellite election offices and install drop boxes to help handle the avalanche of ballots.

“The drop boxes would be very helpful, particularly if the national Republican effort to defund the postal service continues,” said Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia.

Associated Press reporter Mark Scolforo contributed to this report.

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