Wolf has vocally opposed changing Pennsylvania’s voter ID rules. But Wolf now says he’s open to some stricter measures, including requiring ID for mail voting.
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.
Partial transcript of interview with Gov. Tom Wolf, lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
You have had some sort of — what I’ll describe as red lines in the past, right? You said voter ID changes, that’s just a non-starter for you, regardless of what else is in there, voter ID is just a non starter. Are there other similar red lines for you that are just —
Well, let me — let me, let me modify that. It has been, because the voter ID stuff that sort of come from the other side recently seems to me to be suppressive. But I mean, there are — Pennsylvania does have voter ID, you know, if you go to a new precinct to vote, you have to show an ID. So we already have it. It’s the stuff that I think basically says, okay — and I think that’s reasonable. And, and there’s probably a reasonable way to make sure that somebody who votes by mail, you know, shows some ID but but what was in 1300 was just, I mean, I don’t even have a copier machine in my house. I don’t know how I would vote by mail if I had to make a copy of some ID and send it into the voting office.
Right. Although I will say, you know, your office said that voter ID was a non-starter even before HB1300 had been unveiled, right? You were just like, we’re not gonna talk about it.
Yes. Yeah. I guess that was pre-judging that the voter ID that they were talking about was suppressive, not — not something that was trying to address a real issue. I think I was right. But I think — and in the debate in Washington, that there are some things, I don’t know what, frankly, what exactly what they are, but even Stacey Abrams — Stacey Abrams has come around to the idea of some reasonable voter ID. But it wasn’t in 1300.
So I just want to make sure I understand correctly: So it’s not that you wouldn’t touch voter ID at all moving forward, it’s how it’s handled. It’s the specifics of the proposal.
Yeah. As I say, we have voter ID now. And I’m okay with that, the way we do it, you know, and and I’m sure out there there is a reasonable voter ID solution to say, you know, you need to show that you should be voting here. And I’m fine with that. The formula in 1300, in my mind, was not it.
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.”
Lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
So tell me a little bit about the process of negotiating because, as we’ve seen, Republicans have repeatedly accused you of refusing to negotiate, right? And they said, “That’s why HB1300 looks the way it does, because the governor refused to work with us.” So tell me a little bit about your thoughts on how you’re negotiating and where you are on negotiating in the future.
I guess, I guess it’s like anything else in negotiation: If you think the other side is negotiating in good faith, I’ll always be happy to negotiate. 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. And I didn’t get the sense that supporters of 1300 were actually serious about it.
And I actually wrote a letter to the sponsor of it to say, you know, here are some areas we can agree. I mean, there was some conversation about pre-canvassing, there were some other things that we could we could agree on. Let’s focus on those those things.
And again, I think I look back over my seven years here, and I’ve been a Democratic governor with a Republican General Assembly, and yet we’ve gotten a lot of good things done, and I think those areas we’ve sort of tried to focus on, when we’ve gotten things done, we focused on where we can agree and sort of said, “Yeah, we’re going to just disagree, and even argue about it, on the other stuff. But here’s some things maybe where we can come to some agreement.”
So I’ve shown, I think, complete willingness to negotiate when I believe that the other side is negotiating in good faith. When they’re not, then what’s the point?
So at this point, I mean, clearly, you’re open to further changes. But when it comes to election reform, are you at this point actively pushing for more? Are you trying to negotiate for more?
As I wrote in my letter to Representative Grove, I mean, pre-canvassing, more money for election officials in the counties, some flexibility in helping them get access to poll workers and election officials, you know, all those things — and I’m sure for other things, too — let’s sit down and figure out how we can do that. I think that’s — that was the genius of Act 77. I’m not sure what changed early in 2020, but at the end of 2019, we were really moving forward, I think, and took Pennsylvania from one of the least-accessible voting states to one of the most progressive.
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.”
Lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
I want to get your take on the legislature’s use of constitutional amendments, especially for something like voter ID, other proposals that they’ve raised very much as a way to not have to send it to you for your approval or, more likely, veto in some of these cases.
Yeah, I think that’s constitutionally what you can do in Pennsylvania, so knowing that, that I will veto things that I really disagree with, and knowing that they can’t override those vetoes — they haven’t so far — this is their only recourse. And, you know, that’s what they’re, that’s what they’re using. So, you know, it goes directly to the people of Pennsylvania.
Now, you have to have second — you have to have two different sessions of the General Assembly propose these amendments. So this will be the first one. And if the 2022 election returns a different result than the 2020 election did, then even this avenue doesn’t, isn’t going to work. But this is just, you know, gamesmanship. They didn’t get what they wanted in the General Assembly, so they don’t like the fact that we have divided government in Pennsylvania, so they’re using this avenue.
Are you worried about the voter ID amendment?
I think ultimately — again, we’re a democracy, and if the voters decide that’s what they want, they’re going to have a chance to weigh in on this. In the 2022 elections, they have a chance to change the makeup of the General Assembly. If they decide they want to keep doing what they’re doing, and have these folks in the majority, the Republicans, then they’ll get what they asked for. Personally, I’ll be voting no on that.