Pa. GOP proposes major election overhaul, including stricter voter ID and in-person early voting

The legislation is sure to draw intense scrutiny and will likely face steep obstacles as Republican leaders, who control both chambers of the state legislature, try to keep their party unified while also winning the approval of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

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Pennsylvania Republicans unveiled their first proposal for overhauling the state’s election system Thursday, with lawmakers in the state House hoping to make voter identification requirements stricter, establish in-person early voting, and require signature verification of mail ballots, among other major changes.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the House State Government Committee and House Republicans’ point person for election legislation, plans to introduce the bill Thursday, after months of hearings with elections administrators, experts, and voting rights activists.

The legislation is sure to draw intense scrutiny and will likely face steep obstacles as Republican leaders, who control both chambers of the state legislature, try to keep their party unified while also winning the approval of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

For example, Republicans have long called for stricter voter ID rules, saying they would prevent fraud. But there’s no evidence of successful widespread fraud, especially involving fake identities, and such rules can raise barriers to voting for low-income voters, older voters, and voters with disabilities. Even before the legislation was made public, Wolf said this week that any effort to impose new voter ID requirements would be a non-starter.

Election administration has become a highly charged political issue in Harrisburg and across the country, with Democrats accusing Republicans of seeking to weaponize election rules to disenfranchise voters. Several Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have sought to tighten voting laws in the wake of the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump’s lies about fraud and election rigging.

A draft of the legislation was provided to The Inquirer and Spotlight PA ahead of the bill’s introduction.

Among the proposed election changes in the initial bill:

  • Require every voter to present ID at the polls
  • Allow counties to begin processing mail ballots five days before Election Day, also known as “pre-canvassing”
  • Create five days of in-person early voting, beginning after the 2024 presidential election
  • Allow mail ballot drop boxes for seven days before Election Day
  • Eliminate the permanent mail voting list
  • Move the voter registration deadline to 30 days before Election Day, from 15
  • Move the deadline for requesting mail ballots to 15 days before Election Day, from seven
  • Allow voters to fix — or “cure” — mail ballots with missing signatures
  • Establish a Bureau of Election Audits under the state attorney general’s office
  • Allow counties to open satellite election offices
  • Require signature verification for mail ballots
  • Require counties to purchase electronic poll books
  • Increase poll worker compensation from $75-$200 to $175-$300, with the Pennsylvania Department of State covering half the cost of the increases.

Republicans dubbed the bill, HB 1300, the Voting Rights Protection Act.

“Pennsylvanians must have faith in their elections and this bill is another piece of restoring the public’s trust,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said in a statement.

That diminished trust in elections that GOP leaders have cited in pushing for changes in voting laws has been largely driven by Trump’s election lies — and Republicans’ amplification of them.

The proposed changes would have a variety of effects on elections, and past experience in other states has shown that it can be difficult to predict real-world impact. A change meant to strengthen election security, for example, can make it more difficult to vote — but also anger and energize voters, leading to a backlash as resources are poured into combatting potential disenfranchisement. Similarly, changes meant to expand ballot access can have little impact on voter turnout, making voting more convenient but not expanding the electorate.

“This responsible bill includes all aspects of issues brought before the committee and will propel Pennsylvania’s election into the 21st century, all while fixing fatal flaws and election security issues,” Grove said in a statement. “Pennsylvania must be a leader in secure elections, which are also accessible to all legal voters. The Voting Rights Protection Act thoughtfully achieves both initiatives while also supporting citizens’ right to vote.”

Pennsylvania’s Election Code was largely untouched for a long time after its creation in 1937, until Republican legislative leaders negotiated with Wolf in 2019. Together, they passed the law known as Act 77, which for the first time allowed any voter to cast ballots by mail.

But that major change, taking effect during the 2020 presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic, revealed some of the weaknesses in the current system, parts of which were either outdated or entirely new and untested. And it showed some of the dangers of moving too quickly without simultaneously funding Pennsylvania’s election infrastructure, which, like in other states, has long been underfunded and understaffed.

The bill would create state funding for some of the changes, such as covering the full cost of counties buying electronic poll books. After that, the state would cover half the cost of electronic poll books in the future. Other equipment costs have similar funding structures.

The Department of State would be required to cover half the cost of early vote centers, along with the increased poll worker pay.

Any proposed election changes are subject to complicated and contentious political dynamics.

Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly, but legislation ultimately needs Wolf’s approval. Democrats are relying on that veto power to force negotiations over any election legislation, though an early attempt fell apart and led to Republicans drafting Thursday’s bill without input from Democrats.

And even within the Republican Party, there’s disagreement over how to overhaul elections, with some of the most conservative members continuing to focus on the 2020 election and calling for significant restrictions on voting, such as the wholesale repeal of mail voting. Others are interested in less dramatic changes, such as revising outdated portions of the law, clarifying provisions that were the subject of intense litigation last year, and responding to administrative challenges that counties have encountered in recent elections.

“I feel like I’m working in a room filled with gasoline fumes, and there’s more than a few people running around flickering their lighters,” state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), Grove’s counterpart as chair of the Senate State Government Committee, said Thursday.

Argall, who said he hadn’t yet seen the final version of Grove’s proposal, agreed that the politics will be difficult to navigate, both within and across parties. But he held out hope for a compromise. As for whether the House and Senate would be on the same page, Argall said: “Too soon to say. I hope to have more information on that soon, but at this very minute I just can’t make any predictions.”

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