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Gov. Tom Wolf to veto controversial election bill, leaving Pa. without money for new voting machines

Wolf, a Democrat, promised to keep pushing for funding to upgrade voting machines used in the state.

In this 2016 photo, a technician works to prepare voting machines to be used in the presidential election, in Philadelphia.
In this 2016 photo, a technician works to prepare voting machines to be used in the presidential election, in Philadelphia.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced that he will veto a Republican election bill passed amid the budget fray that contained funding for voting machine upgrades he wanted, but would have ended straight-party voting.

When they wrapped up the budget late last month, Republicans who control the legislature tied several measures they wanted to ones that Wolf, a Democrat, opposes. The election bill was no different.

The bill that Wolf plans to veto would have set aside $90 million to update voting machines, eliminated Pennsylvania’s straight-party voting option, reduced the number of printed ballots each county must have on Election Day, and extended absentee ballot deadlines.

The bill also would have required the Department of State to submit a report to the General Assembly if the commonwealth wanted to decertify voting machines in more than half of the state’s 67 counties. That provision would have limited a governor’s ability to order counties to update their voting machines, as Wolf did last year, when he directed them to use machines that produce a paper trail that could easily be audited.

While Wolf supported additional funding for the voting machine overhaul — he initially asked for $75 million over five years — he wrote in his veto message that the decertifying process established by the bill was “not acceptable” and would hinder the ability of the state to adjust to threats to election security.

He also raised issues with the elimination of the straight-party voting option, which allows voters, during general elections, to select all candidates who belong to a particular party by marking just one box. If the bill had become law, those voters would have had to mark a box next to each of a party’s candidates.

“To implement such a change, particularly as new machines are being used for the first time, could lead to voter confusion and longer lines at the polls,” Wolf wrote. “These factors may lead to decreased voter participation, which, again, is in conflict with an inclusive approach to our system of elections.”

Some Democrats balked at the notion of eliminating straight-party voting, saying they feared it could suppress the votes of people with limited educations, and people who don’t speak English. Pennsylvania is one of just nine states with the straight-party voting option.

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate were quick to decry Wolf’s veto decision, with many citing the legislation’s funding for new voting machines. They do not appear to have the votes needed to override Wolf’s veto.

Wolf, in a statement, promised to continue fighting for voting machine funding. It was unclear how much cooperation he’ll get from legislative Republicans. While House Republicans have indicated they would “continue to be engaged” on the issue, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans said they aren’t open to discussing further funding.

Upgrading the state’s voting machines ahead of the 2020 election is expect to cost $150 million. Currently, $14.1 million has been set aside in federal and state funding.

Republicans said they believe Wolf now “fully owns” the financial impact of his voting machine directive, which they fear will lead to property tax hikes as counties search for ways to update their machines.

Senate Republican Whip John Gordner of Columbia County wrote in a statement: “County commissioners and their county residents will be left paying for all of the governor’s unfunded mandate."