The year is young but hyper-partisan Republicans in Harrisburg already have earned themselves national notoriety twice. First, GOP senators refused to seat a Democratic colleague until they were forced to do so by a federal judge. Then last week the Brennan Center, a bipartisan law and public policy institute, published its Voting Laws Roundup 2021 report finding that Pennsylvania is the launching pad for 14 legislative proposals to restrict or complicate access to voting — the most of any state.
GOP legislators in Pennsylvania plan to introduce measures to require voters who want to do so by mail to request a ballot prior to every election, rather than placing such voters on a permanent vote-by-mail-list. Republicans also want to give poll watchers greater access to observe mail-in ballot tabulation; require signature matches on outer envelopes and the mail-in ballots inside; and exclude all mail-in ballots, regardless of postmark, that are not received by election day.
While 28 states seek to increase restrictions, only in Pennsylvania are GOP legislators aiming to revise the history they helped make in October 2019. That’s when a majority in their party joined Democrats and overwhelmingly approved reforms that relaxed registration deadlines and made voting by mail available not only to those who need to be excused from voting in person, but to all voters.
Despite the unusually bipartisan support for “no excuses” mail-in ballots in 2019, Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in Pennsylvania and elsewhere has inspired a dramatic change of heart among some Republicans. Rep. Michael J. Puskaric, of Allegheny County, filed a House sponsorship memo Dec. 8 saying he would seek to repeal “no excuses” voting by mail. His excuse was a purported flood of calls from constituents concerned about election integrity. His GOP colleague Rep. Jim Gregory, of Blair County, made the same excuse about a surge of constituent calls. He also echoed Puskaric’s objections to the state Supreme Court decision extending the deadline for counting mail-in ballots.
Many constituents calling their legislators may have been alarmed by the widespread but baseless “election fraud” claims spread by Trump and his allies before, during, and since Nov. 3. Such claims were tossed out of dozens of courtrooms nationwide, including in Pennsylvania — where a record-breaking 6.9 million voters exercised their right to be heard in person, or by mail. Along with judicial decisions that found no basis for claims of widespread election fraud, the turnout suggests that voting systems worked well, despite the pandemic.
Further reforms will enable more Pennsylvanians to participate in the process. The Brennan Center noted that some legislators in the state have proposed measures to expand early voting and to allow pre-canvassing, or preparations for counting, mail-in ballots before election day. (A bill introduced by Sen. Wayne Fontana, an Allegheny County Democrat, would provide for seven days of pre-canvassing). Another encouraging sign: Election officials are seeking a seat at the table during statehouse discussions about voting reforms.
Republicans in Harrisburg have far more important work to do than currying favor with their party’s Trump faction. After all, the Pennsylvania voters who elected Joe Biden also elected them.