Gov. Tom Wolf has been clear: No changing Pennsylvania’s voter ID rules.
But in a shift, Wolf now says he’s open to some stricter ID rules, including requiring ID for mail voting. The reason he previously drew a red line, he said, is because he didn’t trust that Republicans would negotiate in good faith and believed they were only interested in voter suppression.
“I’m sure out there is a reasonable voter ID solution to say … you need to show that you should be voting here,” Wolf said in an interview last week. “And I’m fine with that. The formula in [the Republican bill], in my mind, was not it.”
Pennsylvania law currently requires that people show ID when voting for the first time at a polling place. A 2012 law, one of the strictest ID requirements in the country, was blocked by courts from ever taking effect. The Republican bill Wolf vetoed would have required ID for every election. But it was also more flexible than many other ID mandates and would have required officials to provide free voter ID cards and accept signed affidavits if a voter doesn’t have ID at the polls.
Republicans were surprised to hear Wolf’s comments — and criticized him for not negotiating at all earlier.
“I’m dumbfounded, I’m literally dumbfounded. Unbelievable,” said State Rep. Seth Grove, House Republicans’ point person on elections and the author of the sweeping bill.
If Wolf wanted a “reasonable approach,” Grove said Monday, he should have put forth his own ideas as part of the policymaking process.
“This entire issue is on his administration being unwilling to come to the table and have discussions on elections,” he said.
Wolf pointed to debate among Democrats in Washington over whether to grudgingly allow new voter ID mandates, which were once considered off-limits in the party and have long been the subject of heated political and legal fights. Wolf noted that Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat and prominent voting-rights activist, has said she’s open to some new rules.
But Wolf said he declared voter ID a nonstarter even before the latest GOP bill was unveiled because he assumed whatever Republicans proposed would be unacceptable.
“I guess that was prejudging that the voter ID that they were talking about was suppressive, not something that was trying to address a real issue,” he said in the interview. “I think I was right.”
That surprised Republican lawmakers, who criticized Wolf for not engaging them as they advanced their bill, HB1300.
“They drew a very distinctive line in the sand,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said.
At one point after Wolf’s office walked away from discussions — and before the bill was introduced — Benninghoff spoke with Wolf’s chief of staff about a different topic, Benninghoff recalled Monday. When Benninghoff floated the question of voter ID, he said, he was again told it was a nonstarter.
That echoed what Wolf’s chief of staff had previously said after walking away from discussions as Grove crafted the legislation. Wolf continued to declare voter ID off-limits, saying so before the bill was introduced; as he spoke out against the actual bill, which was fast-tracked through the legislature; and as he vetoed it.
Benninghoff questioned how well Wolf and his office understood the Republican bill.
“The fact that he’s changing his stance on what he does believe in the ID portion of the bill really begs that question of: Have they, or did they, read the bill in its entirety?” Benninghoff said. Republicans may have been willing to adjust the proposal, he said, but “you’re not going to know that until you ask.”
He said Wolf or someone in his office should have engaged with Republicans.
Wolf said in the interview that he’s willing to negotiate legislation — but only when both sides are participating in good faith. And he didn’t think Grove and other Republicans were. The push by Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to enact new voting rules followed former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election — claims Republicans often amplified.
“If you think the other side is basically just going through a sham, just trying to, you know, go through the motions, but really doesn’t mean it, that’s not a real negotiation,” Wolf said of Republican entreaties to negotiate. “And I didn’t get the sense that supporters of 1300 were actually serious about it.”
Grove laughed at Wolf’s description.
“So by prejudging potential negotiations, you’re not going to enter into negotiations? You didn’t even start to negotiate because you didn’t want to,” Grove said. “There’s nothing else we could have done.”
Grove has previously closed the door on further election legislation for now but said Monday that he’s “always happy to have a conversation” if Wolf reaches out. Still, he’s “not sure we get anywhere close to an agreement” and doesn’t believe the calendar would allow for changes before the state’s critical 2022 elections.
Instead, Grove pointed to Republicans’ new plan: asking voters to approve a voter ID constitutional amendment.
That amendment, introduced by State Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair), would impose a much stricter rule than HB1300 would have, requiring every voter to present government-issued identification to vote. Constitutional amendments must be passed by the legislature in two consecutive sessions before getting on the ballot for voters to decide. The governor plays no role.
The Senate passed the amendment last month. If it passes the House this session, and both chambers again in 2023, it could go to voters as early as the 2023 primary election, potentially putting new requirements in place before the 2024 presidential election.
“The governor had an opportunity to negotiate an election bill. He hasn’t come to the table and had a discussion,” Grove said. “So we’re going to have other avenues to get it done.”
Wolf described Republicans’ focus on constitutional amendments — which they successfully used this year to curb his emergency powers amid criticism of his pandemic response — as “gamesmanship.”
“They didn’t get what they wanted in the General Assembly,” he said. “So they don’t like the fact that we have divided government in Pennsylvania, so they’re using this avenue.”