Wolf vetoes Pa. GOP-led election overhaul citing voter ID restrictions

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks from a podium, flanked by other officials

“This bill is ultimately not about improving access to voting or election security, but about restricting the freedom to vote,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

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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.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a Republican rewrite of Pennsylvania’s Election Code on Wednesday, making clear his party’s opposition to stricter voter ID requirements and setting up a potential showdown on the issue at the ballot box.

In addition to requiring voters to show ID during every election, the bill would have created early voting, instituted new security rules for drop boxes, and allowed voters to fix mail ballots with missing signatures. GOP lawmakers said the bill provided extra security measures while also expanding access, but Wolf in his veto message said it would create new barriers for voters.

“This bill is ultimately not about improving access to voting or election security, but about restricting the freedom to vote,” Wolf said in a statement. “If adopted, it would threaten to disrupt election administration, undermine faith in government, and invite costly, time-consuming, and destabilizing litigation.”

The governor’s rejection of House Bill 1300 was expected, but it dealt a blow to county election officials caught in the partisan battle of voting reforms.

They’ve been asking for two specific provisions: the ability to process mail ballots ahead of Election Day, and moving up the deadline to request a mail ballot. Passing those two measures, officials said, will fix a majority of the issues that arose last November, when election workers were running in-person and mail elections simultaneously during a pandemic.

While the 150-page bill — dubbed the Voting Rights Protection Act — included the two priorities of election officials, it also contained numerous proposals Democrats said would disenfranchise voters, such as limiting the use of drop boxes and requiring signature verification on mail ballots.

“This is Pennsylvania’s voter suppression effort rearing its ugly head,” Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) said on the Senate floor before the chamber approved the bill Friday. “This is Pennsylvania contributing to the national state-by-state effort to suppress the vote.”

Rep. Seth Grove, a York County Republican who wrote the bill, said it would restore confidence in elections through enhanced security measures such as requiring voters to present an ID each time they vote — as opposed to only when they vote at a new polling site, as is currently law — requiring bipartisan teams to check the IDs of people returning ballots at drop boxes, and requiring ballot-scanning machines to have signature verification capabilities.

The measure also included early in-person voting after the 2024 presidential election, curbside voting for those who have difficulties going inside a polling place, and increased poll worker pay.

“Today Gov. Wolf has done a tremendous disservice to the voters and county election officials by vetoing HB1300 after never engaging in negotiations with the General Assembly,” Grove said Wednesday in a tweet.

Democrats said the bill was a product of Republicans’ refusal to accept the results of the Nov. 3 presidential contest and a solution in search of a problem. There was no widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, and multiple government officials and audits confirmed the accuracy of the votes.

Wolf on Wednesday used his line-item veto power to remove $3.1 million from the state budget that Republicans had included to establish a Bureau of Election Audits. Democrats said they never agreed to the creation of such an office.

The governor said he was “willing to engage in good faith to refine our shared priorities and work to find common ground in areas where we do not currently have agreement,” but he said he refused to negotiate if stricter voter ID requirements were part of the package.

There is a way for Republicans to avoid Wolf entirely: the constitutional amendment process, which they’re increasingly using to advance their priorities. GOP lawmakers sent two questions about curtailing the governor’s emergency powers to the voters, who approved the changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution this May.

Such amendments rarely fail to pass: Since the 1990s, voters have approved 100% of ballot questions.

Grove warned in a statement last week that if his bill was vetoed, “we will take election reform directly to the people and bypass the executive branch.”

A constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair) would require voters to show a “valid,” government-issued ID each time they vote at a polling place or include proof of ID with their mail ballot. It passed the Senate last week and was sent to the House for consideration.

The General Assembly must approve the measure in two consecutive two-year sessions to send the question to the voters. The earliest the question could appear on the ballot is 2023.

Voter ID has a contentious history in Pennsylvania. In 2012, the state enacted one of the nation’s strictest voter ID mandates, but courts struck it down as unconstitutional before it took effect.

Still, roughly three-quarters of respondents to a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll of Pennsylvania voters said they favor requiring all voters to show photo ID.

Wolf said the state already has voter ID requirements, though it’s fair to have a discussion about whether Pennsylvanians are “satisfied” with the current rules.

“The voter ID that was talked about in HB 1300 is not the voter ID that I think is reasonable,” he said Wednesday during a press conference. “It’s selectively discriminatory and it suppresses the vote.”

Voter ID can make it harder for marginalized groups such as the elderly to access the polls, though Grove’s bill would have required the Department of State to provide each voter a free voter registration card that includes their signature and a scannable ID number that could be used at the polls.

State lawmakers recessed until late September after passing the election overhaul last week, diminishing the hopes of county election officials that changes will be implemented in time for the fall election.

Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) has introduced a bill that addresses election officials’ two priorities: giving counties seven days of pre-canvassing and moving the mail ballot application deadline to 15 days before Election Day.

Even if lawmakers and Wolf agree to the measure this fall, counties would have five weeks at most to implement the changes and notify the public.

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.

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