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Pennsylvania governor, legislative leaders reach deal to postpone 2020 primary for coronavirus

Pennsylvania's primary election was originally scheduled for April 28.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said the 2020 primary election will be postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic. The election had been scheduled for April 28.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said the 2020 primary election will be postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic. The election had been scheduled for April 28.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services (custom credit)

Top Pennsylvania lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf have reached agreement on postponing the state’s primary election from April 28 until June 2, The Inquirer has learned, with legislation poised to advance Monday and move quickly through the state legislature.

The proposal would also give county election officials more flexibility in consolidating polling places this year.

The deal was reached after multiple conference calls throughout the day Sunday, including with legislative leaders of the House and Senate caucuses of both parties and the governor’s office, said State Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), the chair of the House State Government Committee, which will play a key role in moving the proposed legislation.

“My understanding as of right now is everybody’s on the same page,” he said Sunday night. “There’s no partisanship, we’re just trying to work together.”

His Democratic counterpart on the committee, State Rep. Kevin Boyle of Philadelphia, confirmed the deal.

“We’re still on track to move election day to June 2,” Boyle said, calling the effort bipartisan.

Leaders still need to run the agreement by rank-and-file lawmakers, which is expected this week. If there is no push-back, it could be sent to Wolf before week’s end. A Wolf spokesperson said Sunday that he supports postponing the primary.

Everett will call a committee meeting Monday to consider and pass Senate Bill 422, which would create an advisory board on election bills and was previously passed by the Senate.

If all goes according to plan, the House State Government Committee will pass the bill in its current form Monday, sending it to the House floor, where it would be amended Tuesday.

There are two amendments, Everett said. The first would postpone the primary election and authorize county election officials to close and consolidate polling places without the usual court approval. They say they need the flexibility, as they’ve lost polling places and poll workers due to concerns over the coronavirus.

The second change would allow elections officials to begin processing absentee ballots earlier. A recent law loosened the state’s restrictive absentee ballot rules to allow any voter to vote by mail, but it requires waiting until 8 p.m. Election Day to begin processing those ballots, which could mean elections would take days to call.

After amending the bill Tuesday, the full House can vote to approve the bill Wednesday, sending it to the Senate. Because the bill had previously gone through the chamber, senators can simply concur with its amended version, sending it to Wolf to be signed into law.

Spokespeople for legislative leaders and the governor were circumspect Sunday when asked to comment on legislation whose language is still being developed.

“We have not yet seen the final bill, but we’re working with the legislature and are in support of moving the primary to a later date,” a spokesperson for Wolf said.

“We continue to work with the House and administration toward the final consideration of moving the primary,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) and Senate Republicans. “We still need to talk with our caucus members about it.”

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) “has been open to the idea” of postponing the primary, spokesperson Mike Straub said. Straub said he had not spoken to Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and did not know his position.

“We will caucus the bill tomorrow and get a sense of where everyone is and then go from there,” Straub said. “It will be an interesting caucus.”

Turzai has been silent. As speaker, he will be a key player because he helps control the flow of legislation to the House floor.

If the legislation passes and is signed by Wolf, Pennsylvania will join several other states in postponing their primaries, which in addition to the Democratic presidential nomination includes races for the U.S. House of Representatives and state House and Senate.

In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, the virus has upended election preparations, as institutions pulled out of hosting polls and poll workers declined to work. Election officials also worried that asking voters to congregate in central locations to cast ballots goes against public health guidance. They also faced administrative challenges as some offices were closed due to government shutdowns and others worked with skeleton staffs.

As those problems mounted, county elections officials began urging the state to postpone the election.

“The postponement is a good thing because it’s going to give counties time to get their hands around some of the challenges they’ve been facing,” said Forrest Lehman, election director in Lycoming County, who was on some of the calls Sunday.