By Marc Levy
HARRISBURG, Pa. — In the shadow of an increasingly strident presidential campaign, Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives approved changes to the state’s fledgling mail-in voting law last Wednesday, but in highly partisan fashion.
The Republican-penned bill passed, 112-90, on a near party-line vote in the battleground state where President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Democratic Party are already in court seeking favorable decisions on how Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting should be administered in the Nov. 3 election.
Warnings about voter fraud and accusations of voter suppression flew in the chamber.
The vote came after a fruitless summer of discussions between Republican lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, on a compromise to fix gray areas and glitches exposed in the June 2 primary election in Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law.
Wolf will veto it, his office said last Wednesday.
During more than an hour of floor debate, Republicans stressed that their bill provides more convenience for voters while making elections more secure and efficient.
Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams) said the bill ensures that the election and mail-in voting “is done as clean and pure as possible.”
Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) meanwhile, accused Wolf of wanting to send paper ballots “all over the commonwealth, willy-nilly, without a commonsense security and integrity process and measures in place” before ticking off a handful of election fraud cases in recent decades.
The bill, Saylor said, will ensure “that every Pennsylvania vote cast is an honest vote and is a sincere vote and that we can all believe in our democracy again because we have fair elections.”
Democrats countered that Republicans were sowing false seeds of suspicion to prevent people from voting.
“The real voter fraud is the voter suppression and intimidation that’s in this bill,” said Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, (D-Philadelphia). “That’s voter fraud.”
Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware) called the Republican bill “nothing but a failed attempt to suppress and contain the vote” while Democrats said that, in any case, ballots are not sent out “willy-nilly.”
“You have to request a ballot, it is why it is called a no-excuse absentee, which is different from other states opting to send out a ballot to any registered voter,” said Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (D-Delaware).
Time for an agreement is ticking down: mail-in ballots could become available in less than two weeks.
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.
The bill still requires approval in the Senate, where the Republican majority has drafted nearly identical legislation. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature have largely lined up with positions in lawsuits filed by their fellow partisans.
One key aspect of the bill will allow counties 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.
Democrats, however, want to give counties more time, as many as 21 days before the election. That position is backed by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the AARP.
Another provision shortens the time period in which voters can 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 June 2 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.
The bill also prescribes specific locations where voters can deliver mail-in ballots by hand: to a county courthouse, permanent election office and polling places on Election Day.
Democrats oppose that provision, too. They say it effectively bans the drop boxes that Philadelphia — home to one in five registered Democratic voters in Pennsylvania — and some southeastern Pennsylvania counties used in the primary to help handle the avalanche of mail-in ballots and plan to use again in November.
The law is currently silent on drop boxes.
Meanwhile, the bill lifts the county residency restriction on which party officials may observe inside polling places. But Democrats say that opens the door to voter intimidation and violence on Election Day.