Pa. GOP advances election bill that would ban drop boxes, get mail-in ballots to voters earlier

The bill was championed by Republicans as an effort to ensure a secure election, and decried by Democrats as an attack on ballot access.

(Yong Kim/Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Yong Kim/Philadelphia Inquirer)

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With just two months to go until Nov. 3, the Pennsylvania House on Tuesday advanced a voting reform bill championed by Republicans as an effort to ensure a secure election, and decried by Democrats as an attack on ballot access.

The legislation would give counties more time before Election Day to process mail-in ballots, a provision favored by both parties and Gov. Tom Wolf. But it would also effectively ban the use of satellite drop boxes, which have become a target of the Trump administration.

The state House will meet Wednesday to take a final vote on the bill and decide whether to send it to the state Senate. Leaders in the upper chamber have put forth their own proposal, which contains many of the same changes.

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Wolf has not commented on the House measure, but previously said he opposes parts of the Senate bill and considers it a “first pass.”

In a nearly party-line vote, lawmakers on Tuesday amended the House bill to allow counties to begin processing absentee and mail-in ballots three days before polls open.

Election officials say such a change is necessary to account for an anticipated surge in mail-in voting caused, in part, by the coronavirus. According to a Department of State report that reviewed the June primary, about half of Pennsylvania’s counties were still counting ballots one week after polling places closed.

A previous version of the bill would have allowed counties to begin the process 21 days before an election, the number of days recommended by the state department and endorsed by Wolf.

The bill as advanced Tuesday would also provide greater flexibility in appointing poll workers and require counties to begin sending ballots to voters earlier than currently mandated.

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But what Republicans said were measures to ensure timely election results and improve security, Democrats derided as efforts to suppress voter turnout. Like the Senate proposal, the House bill tightens the deadline to request a mail-in ballot from seven days before an election to 15 days.

And Philadelphia lawmakers spoke against eliminating drop boxes, which were used in the city during the June primary and have been embraced by other counties as a way to ease the anticipated Election Day burden.

Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), chair of the State Government Committee, defended the provision, saying the legislature never intended to endorse drop boxes or early voting.

“And if they’re not comfortable with mail-in voting, you know what you can do?” Everett said. “You can do it the old-fashioned way.”

Both Democrats and Republicans, as well as Wolf, agree that changes need to be made to Pennsylvania’s election laws before November to account for the coronavirus pandemic as well as ongoing U.S. Postal Service delays.

But Democratic lawmakers said the amendment that emerged Tuesday was not the result of promised negotiations.

“This actually should not be a contentious issue,” Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia) said. “It should be a bipartisan issue to allow every Pennsylvanian to have access to their fundamental right to vote. But what this amendment does is make the process inaccessible for Pennsylvanians. And unfortunately, it has been driven by national politics.”

The bill as advanced lacks other components favored by Wolf and the Department of State, including allowing mail-in ballots to be counted if they arrive up to three days after an election.

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