Pa. counties fear desired election law changes will get lost in sprawling GOP bill

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chairman of the House State Government Committee, is pushing for standardized training for election officials as part of a host of election-related reforms following the Nov. 3 general election. (Dan Gleiter / PennLive)

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chairman of the House State Government Committee, is pushing for standardized training for election officials as part of a host of election-related reforms following the Nov. 3 general election. (Dan Gleiter / PennLive)

This story originally appeared on WITF.

Counties want it to be easier to process mail-in ballots. Republicans’ sweeping election overhaul bill gives them what they want—and a lot they could do without.

Some other provisions in the 149 page Voting Rights Protection Act put the election code changes counties need at risk, said Lisa Schaefer, County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania executive director.

“And we’re very concerned that if they get put into a bill with a lot of other things, that we’re just going to end up in the same place we are now,” Schaefer said.

It wouldn’t be the first time, she noted. Her group has been pushing for changes that would make it easier for election workers to “pre-canvass,” or partially process, mail-in ballots for years.

One change would allow election workers to prepare ballots to be counted before Election Day. The other would move back the deadline to request a mail-in ballot application to 15 days before Election Day, rather than seven days.

House Republicans blocked efforts to make such changes in the fall. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, experts warned the lack of action might result in a period of time where it would appear that then-President Trump was ahead in the polls—only to fall behind in coming days as the predominantly Democrat-favoring mail-in ballots were tabulated.

Then-President Trump used the appearance of a “big blue shift” or “red mirage” in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to falsely claim there was voter fraud. Numerous audits and reviews have shown there was no widespread voter fraud in the commonwealth in the 2020 election.

After Trump lost Pennsylvania, Republican State Rep. Seth Grove repeated some of those claims, including the theory that Dominion Voting Systems machines were rigged. Dominion has since sued Fox News, the former president and others over that claim.

Now, Grove is the sponsor of the sprawling House bill, which includes the reforms counties wanted. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf opposes the bill, with his office calling it “an extremist proposal” attempting to undermine confidence in the election system.

Because needed reforms are sandwiched between more divisive provisions, such as requirements that in-person voters provide proof of identity, the bill’s passage seems unlikely, said voting rights expert David Thornburgh.

He is president of the Committee of Seventy, a bipartisan group that aims to “protect and improve the voting process.” He said the plan needs to be something Democrats can also support.

“If you’ve got solutions to real problems, but you’ve got a lot of other stuff packaged around it, as they say, is the juice worth the squeeze?” Thornburgh said. “And if it’s not, you ultimately have to walk away.”

His group supports the pre-canvassing changes counties want, but he said many of the other aspects of the proposal may not address actual problems.

Thornburgh is concerned some parts of the bill are responding to false claims of election fraud, such as those made by the former president, which have no basis in reality.

“We do live in an era where lies, mistruths, half-truths seem to circulate frequently, with a lot of impact,” Thornburgh said. “But that’s not what this process ought to be about.”

Grove says the legislation responds to a variety of concerns raised by numerous groups during recent hearings. Asked by a reporter about whether the bill is a response to Trump’s loss, Grove said the state has had “major problems” during elections since 2016.

“People are going to make up their minds—on the right and the left—people are going to make up their minds what they feel is true,” Grove said. “What I know is we went through ten exhaustive, comprehensive hearings with election experts on our law and how we administer elections. We have a report rooted in those hearings.”

Get the WHYY app!

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