The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee passed a slate of controversial election reforms early Monday panned by Democrats and likely destined for Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen.
Still, Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, issued a stern warning before the panel approved a new version of his Voting Rights Protection Act that all sides should come prepared to negotiate lest the issue fall off his radar in 2022.
“I am not having an Act 77 where large changes are taken and occur in a major election year,” he said. “We have a major election year next year, and I will not allow massive changes next year.”
His comments referenced Gov. Tom Wolf’s July interview with the The Philadelphia Inquirer in which he said he prejudged a prior version of Grove’s bill that he vetoed a month earlier. Grove said the administration stopped taking his calls in late April and likely never read the measure, let alone offered any changes to it.
“It is extremely rare for the Legislature, and the governor, to essentially get a redo on a bill,” he said. “I sincerely hope Wolf realizes this and takes full advantage of the situation to work with the legislative branch of government on this bill.”
The committee also approved a bill that would reapportion all prisoners to their last known address, rather than the facility in which they are incarcerated, for the purposes of state and congressional redistricting.
House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, authored the measure after the state Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) adopted a similar proposal in August, though it only applies to inmates at state correctional facilities.
She and Democratic members on the committee, however, discouraged support for the bill after Republicans amended it to apply the new rule to students living in on-campus housing.
Republicans said it was a fair extension of the policy, but overall doubted the authority of the LRC to implement such a swift change to the state’s redistricting process. Grove even took the rare step of advancing the measure “with a negative recommendation” to the House floor.
“It’s our belief that this proposal stands on weak legal footing,” he said. “While this amended bill makes it better, it doesn’t make it right.”
A third proposal approved by the committee includes a sweeping constitutional amendment that would require voter identification before casting a ballot during each election, turn the Secretary of State into an elected office and authorize audits before election results can be certified.
Democrats excoriated the measure as an assault on voting rights and accused the majority party of perpetuating falsehoods about the security of the state’s elections.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Republicans should denounce conspiracies about the validity of the results as a way to restore public trust instead of focusing on legislation that won’t make it beyond the governor’s desk.
“The only reason we are doing this … is because some are disappointed in the result of the election,” he said. “We need to move on.”
Prime sponsor Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Williamsport, said his proposal is “only the beginning.”
“This is just the start because there are going to be many more statutory changes based on what we heard in the [election] hearings that were conducted,” he said. “We have a job before us and the whole purpose of what we should be accomplishing here is giving voters assurity.”
Wheeland’s comments reference testimony collected during the committee’s slate of election administration hearings in which local election workers reported being overextended, under-resourced and confused in the wake of Act 77 – the 2019 modernization law that authorized no-excusing voting by mail.
This, Republicans in both chambers argue, lead to a disparate application of state law across all 67 counties.
“We must stop running 67 different types of elections,” Wheeland said.
A constitutional amendment must pass in both chambers of the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before appearing on the ballot. The earliest this could occur for Wheeland’s proposal is 2023.
The committee also approved bills that change candidate electronic filing requirements; make information collected under the Disease Control and Prevention Law public record; prohibits regulations from moving forward during statewide emergencies; requires a fiscal note for constitutional ballot questions that incur public debt; and vests the sole authority of issuing mask mandates at sporting events to local officials.