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Pennsylvania Republicans make an opening bid for election changes: ‘We have a god-awful’ law

Republicans outlined a sweeping set of changes they hope to negotiate in time for next year’s elections, when open races for governor and U.S. Senate will be on the ballot.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York)
State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York)

As Republican lawmakers across the country have moved to tighten voting laws after former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election, Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature has waited to act during months of hearings.

Now Republicans in Harrisburg are making their first moves, with the state House GOP releasing a report Monday that outlines a sweeping set of changes they hope to negotiate in time for next year’s elections, when open races for governor and U.S. Senate will be on the ballot.

The 99-page report from Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the House State Government Committee, summarizes testimony from elections administrators, advocates, and policy experts the committee gathered during 10 hearings.

“We have a god-awful election law, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Grove said in an interview Monday before the report’s release. “How do we improve access? We need to make voting easier, and harder to cheat. How do we make sure we have full accessibility for those who are legally allowed to vote, with the right security, integrity provisions put in there to make sure you do have a secure election, minimizing any disenfranchisement?”

The emerging GOP plan comes as other Republican legislatures have moved to tighten voting laws. In Pennsylvania, battle lines are already being drawn before negotiations begin. Gov. Tom Wolf, a second-term Democrat, could veto any election legislation. Wolf’s chief of staff told the Associated Press last week that he wouldn’t accept changes to the state’s voter ID rules. That prompted Grove to say he was “disheartened” the administration wouldn’t engage in discussions.

“The door’s still open for me, even though we got burned by the Wolf administration,” Grove said.

The Wolf administration didn’t comment Monday. Democrats in Harrisburg have generally approached the issue with skepticism, noting that dozens of state GOP lawmakers signed letters urging Congress to reject President Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. Among the signatories was Grove, who has since said he accepts the election results.

Ideas in the report include:

  1. Increased uniformity around election policies and procedures, including by having more explicit language in state law and reducing the amount of administrative guidance issued by the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections.

  2. Eliminating the “permanent” list that voters can sign up to receive mail ballot applications every year and has led to voter confusion and created significant administrative burdens for county elections offices.

  3. Banning or limiting third-party mailing of mail ballot applications and voter registration forms.

  4. Requiring post-election audits be conducted by a third party, such as the state auditor general.

  5. Restoring an earlier voter registration deadline of 30 days before Election Day. Current law, changed in 2019, allows people to register up to 15 days before an election.

  6. Establishing earlier mail ballot deadlines, which would give voters less time to request a mail ballot but expand the window between the deadlines for requesting and returning ballots, a window that is currently so tight it can disenfranchise thousands of voters.

  7. Requiring signature verification for all mail ballots, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last fall isn’t required under existing law.

  8. Implementing stricter voter ID rules, “with all eligible voters able to receive a free compliant identification.” (Current law requires voters show identification when voting for the first time at a precinct in person.)

  9. Applying polling place rules to drop boxes and satellite elections offices, which could allow partisan poll watchers into elections offices where voters request, fill out, and submit mail ballots.

It’s unclear what impact Grove’s as-yet-undrafted legislation would have on elections — including who might gain or lose voting access, and how security might be tightened or loosened. The report doesn’t provide detailed recommendations. Grove hopes to negotiate with Wolf’s office and others before writing legislation that could be introduced as soon as this month.

Many of the report’s ideas center on modernizing and standardizing election administration. Some are likely to appeal to liberals, who tend to focus more on voter access, while others will likely be supported by conservatives, who tend to focus on election security and integrity.

Notably missing from the suggestions are ideas championed by the most conservative Republicans — such as banning mail ballot drop boxes or repealing mail voting altogether — or those on Democratic wish lists, such as same-day voter registration, expanded in-person early voting, or automatic voter registration.

The ideas include voter ID rules that are “implemented fairly and accessibly,” an idea sure to draw criticism because of nationwide Republican attempts over the last decade to introduce ID requirements that could disproportionately affect low-income voters and voters of color. Pennsylvania verifies identities at various parts of the voting process, such as through a driver’s license or Social Security number, but it is not as strict as some other states.

Also missing from the report is an explicit endorsement of processing mail ballots prior to Election Day — what’s known as “pre-canvassing” — despite broad support for allowing it so votes can be counted more quickly, preventing delays in election results. Grove said Republicans had already supported the idea last year and continue to back it.

» READ MORE: It didn’t need to take that long: What Pennsylvania’s election could have looked like with earlier counting

Some prominent Republicans have continued to amplify Trump’s false fraud claims, none more so than State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), a likely candidate for governor next year. Mastriano has invited Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to appear at a campaign fund-raiser later this week.

“The goal of this was how to fix our law moving forward — that was our mission, and that’s what the report highlighted,” Grove said. “[Mail voting is] here, it’s not going away, so how do we fix it and improve upon it moving forward?” He described mail ballots as popular.

“Our caucus is a very big caucus,” he said. “There are members who will not vote to repeal mail-in ballots at all. There are members that would vote 50 times to get rid of mail-in ballots. It’s working through those individuals to come up with a compromise. … Maybe everybody needs to beat their chest, get it out of their system, and move on.”