Disparate elections: Political battles keep Pennsylvania voting procedures up in the air | News


HARRISBURG, Pa. — Lawmakers have implemented universal voting by mail in Pennsylvania starting in 2020.

Two years later, the law expanding the practice was declared unconstitutional by a panel of appellate judges in a case currently on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Between these developments was the 2020 presidential election – marked by late changes in state guidelines and court rulings on the processing and counting of ballots, a torrent of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the victory for President Joe Biden and multiple legislative proposals to rewrite Pennsylvania’s election code.

Proposals still pending in the state legislature seek to change the mail-in voting process. Others, in the form of constitutional amendments, pursue the same goal as the lawsuit – to eliminate it altogether.

A ruling from the Democratic-majority Pennsylvania Supreme Court is pending on whether it will uphold the 3-2 ruling by the Commonwealth Court, split by party with Republicans in the majority.

A Commonwealth Court judge this week ruled that Bill 77 of 2019 will be struck down on March 15, according to the Associated Press, two months before the May 17 spring primary. The Supreme Court will not hear arguments in the case. until March 8.

“I am truly heartbroken and saddened that this has become so polarizing. Democracy itself has become so polarizing,” said Susan Gobreski, director of government policy for the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. “I think there is a path to sanity if we can agree that eligible voters should be allowed to vote.”

Mail-in voting and related amendments were passed by force of a Republican majority in the General Assembly. Only two House Republicans, and no GOP senators, voted against the measure. The opposition of some Democrats rested primarily on eliminating the straight party vote.

The law led 2.6 million Pennsylvanians to vote by mail in fall 2020, more than one in three of all ballots. It also extended the deadline for registering to vote to 15 days before an election, from 30 days previously. And he created a permanent mail-in ballot list and allowed mail-in ballots to be returned until the polls closed on Election Day.

Now the effort to reform or overturn the law is being pushed by Republicans, including some lawmakers who voted for the initial changes.

Focus on expanding access

The Commonwealth Court, in its majority opinion, held that the state constitution required in-person voting. The ruling said a successful electoral referendum would be needed to pass a constitutional amendment making postal voting permanent.

Election integrity is the stated concern of Republicans seeking legislative changes, with questions raised about how the State Department has implemented the law — the ballot cure, for example, through which voters have the opportunity to correct certain errors when filling out their ballots — and how the state Supreme Court interpreted it.

Specifically, just days before the 2020 general election, the state High Court opened a three-day grace period for the release of ballot papers after the polls closed. This period was not included in the law, which drew challenges from Republicans.

Steve Paul, along with grassroots advocacy group One Pennsylvania, helped state Democrats negotiate the successful passage of Bill 77. Support was bipartisan, Paul recalled, and most of those involved came away happy.

Lawmakers as a whole, if they are serious about expanding democracy and voting access, Paul said, should focus on initiatives such as same-day voter registration and the in-person early voting outside of the quirk of the postal mail process allowing for in-person returns. .

These are reforms that Gobreski said the League of Women Voters also supports, in addition to removing the second envelope required for mail-in ballots, expanding the use of drop boxes and satellite polling stations, and allowing voters to pre-register at age 17.

Instead, Paul said there were repeated baseless allegations that the election was rigged. He worries that attempts to repeal or amend Bill 77 will confuse voters.

“I’m afraid a lot of people think that’s not an option anymore,” Paul said. “Some legislators are still pushing this big lie and trying to take people’s votes away. It seems they are focused on trying to silence 3 million people who are choosing this as an option to vote.

Reform proposal

The preparation and counting of ballots proved to be tedious in the fall of 2020.

Election officials continue to push for reforms that would, at the very least, have mail-in ballots ready to be counted weeks before election night. As it stands, it can’t start before 7 a.m., when the polls open. Votes can only be counted after the polls have closed. The result in 2020 was that the vote count in many counties took days, not hours.

Alison Dagnes, professor of political science at the University of Shippensburg, described it as the “red mirage”, where former President Donald Trump took the lead before mail-in votes were processed. That allowed Trump and his supporters to question the count, as mail-in ballots, largely submitted by Democrats, were tallied for days after polls closed.

“With COVID-19, Donald Trump knew mail-in voting would shift to Democrats,” Dagnes said. “He laid the groundwork for this for months before the election.”

A GOP electoral reform proposal last summer passed the General Assembly along party lines and was ultimately opposed by Gov. Tom Wolf. It was reintroduced last fall by State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, has gone through two committees on party-line votes and awaits a possible floor vote.

The measure aims to require voters to present valid identification, such as a driver’s license, at each election to vote. It also sets up the availability of free identity cards for people in need. It aims to establish signature verification for mail-in ballots, and it would reduce the registration window and the mail-in ballot request window. However, it would also extend pre-canvassing for five days before Election Day.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding that you can’t improve convenience and increase security at the same time,” said Elizabeth Stelle, policy director at the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative think tank.

Election law must be enforced as written, Stelle said. If changes happen, she said it has to come through legislation and not through the courts.

Citing Grove’s proposal, Stelle called the reforms “common sense” that should be considered bipartisan. Other states have successfully incorporated universal mail-in voting into elections for years, she noted.

“That, in and of itself, is not necessarily good or bad. It’s the way it’s run,” Stelle said of mail-in voting. “It wasn’t very well executed the first time around.”

A bipartisan measure introduced in the state Senate seeks to implement recommendations from a special committee report on election integrity and reform. He was proposed in September by state senators David Argall, R-Berks/Schuylkill and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, but did not move from his original mission on the committee.

The proposal aims to allow ballots to be prepared for counting at least three days before an election, to implement a barcode system allowing voters to track their ballots, to broadcast the ballot count live mail-in ballots, formally establish rules for drop boxes, and allow monthly updates to remove deceased voters from rolls. These updates would come daily for the two weeks leading up to a general or primary election.

Last June, Franklin & Marshal surveyed 444 registered voters. There were slightly more Democrats polled than Republicans. Independents were also included.

The poll found that 81% supported matching signatures for mail-in ballots and 74% supported voter ID requirements. About 62% supported counting absentee ballots before Election Day. The split was nearly even on whether or not they supported no-apology voting by mail.

“It’s discouraging”

In addition to the proposed changes to Law 77, constitutional changes are also proposed in the legislative package, including measures to repeal postal voting, create judicial districts for appeal judges, and require ID. to vote.

Such amendments must go through the General Assembly in back-to-back sessions before being added to the ballot papers as voter referendums – 2023 now being the soonest possible.

While the process to get a referendum on the ballot is long, history shows that voters have a proven tendency to pass most amendments. According to SpotlightPA, only six of the 49 proposed amendments have been defeated since 1968.

Diana Robinson is director of civic engagement at Make the Road Pennsylvania, a community action group representing Latinos in the Philadelphia, Allentown and Reading areas. People of color have always been disenfranchised in the United States, and even now she said there are attempts such as flyers printed in Spanish with incorrect voting deadlines intended to prevent minorities from voting .

Bill 77 expanded voting rights and measures such as required identification are a step backwards, she said, comparing it to a poll tax or a literacy test.

“It discourages people from participating in the process. When people go to the polls and they’re ready to vote but they’re turned away, it’s discouraging. In many ways, it’s humiliating,” Robinson said of someone who hypothetically forgets or doesn’t have ID.

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