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The Pa. governor’s race will shape voting laws — and maybe the 2024 election

Voting laws are likely to be one of the most high-stakes consequences of the election, one that could ripple into the 2024 presidential campaign.

A voter holds a sign on the lawn in front of the Independence Visitors Center in Philadelphia as Joe Biden supporters rallied to ensure every vote was counted in the 2020 presidential election.
A voter holds a sign on the lawn in front of the Independence Visitors Center in Philadelphia as Joe Biden supporters rallied to ensure every vote was counted in the 2020 presidential election.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The Democratic push to change voting laws fizzled in Washington this month, but Pennsylvania is about to see its own battle on the issue: the governor’s race.

This fall’s election will almost certainly decide whether significant rollbacks of mail voting and other new restrictions are signed by a new Republican governor — or blocked by a Democratic successor to Gov. Tom Wolf. It’s likely to be one of the most high-stakes consequences of the election, one that could ripple into the 2024 presidential campaign.

Republicans running to replace Wolf are promising to repeal the bipartisan 2019 law that allowed for widespread mail voting. They also plan to impose voter ID requirements, restrict mail ballot drop boxes, and do away with other procedures adopted during the pandemic. Some have said they would eliminate mail voting almost entirely, severely curtailing an option used by 2.6 million Pennsylvanians in 2020, mostly Democrats.

The only major Democrat in the field, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has pledged to veto nearly all those ideas, including any attempt to restrict mail voting.

“Congress has failed to protect voting rights,” Shapiro said in an interview. “Now what’s clear is that the battle is going to be left up to the states.”

With either a signature or veto, Shapiro said, the next governor will shape voting rights in Pennsylvania. The new governor will also appoint a secretary of state who will oversee voting in and certification of the 2024 election, when Pennsylvania will again be a key battleground — though county officials also play a significant role in collecting and counting votes. The secretary could be even more significant after former President Donald Trump tried to subvert the will of the voters and throw out Pennsylvania’s lawful result.

» READ MORE: We asked GOP Senate candidates if they would have backed Pa.’s 2020 election results. They wouldn’t say.

Republicans, often echoing or at least nodding to Trump’s lies about a stolen election, argue that the Wolf administration and the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court vastly overstepped their authority in altering the rules for the 2020 election as they tried to adjust for a historic health crisis.

“We are going to get back to real elections that you will have confidence in and that I can have confidence in so we can go back to having a real democracy,” Dave White, a former Delaware County councilman, said at a GOP gubernatorial debate this month. He said Act 77, the 2019 measure pass by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Democratic governor, “really screwed up the election law” and cost the GOP the presidential race.

There is no evidence of significant fraud in the long history of mail voting across the country, or in the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, a finding affirmed by independent reviews, including by Trump’s former attorney general. There have been fewer than 10 known prosecutions for voter fraud in Pennsylvania in that race out of almost 7 million votes cast. Republicans say there are still deep doubts about the 2020 election. But those doubts have been fueled mostly by a sustained and baseless attack by Trump and his allies, not actual evidence of wrongdoing.

But Republicans also point to the broad public support for ideas like voter ID. And they say the state has to increase security and do away with the 2020 procedural changes, such as a court ruling that barred officials from throwing out ballots based on signature comparisons.

They’ll likely have the chance to implement their vision if they win, since the GOP already holds — and is widely expected to keep — both chambers of the legislature. Only a Democratic governor has stood between Republicans and the kind of voting limits imposed in at least 19 states since the 2020 election. Some GOP-controlled states have also passed laws to weaken election administrators and shift authority to political partisans, alarming democracy experts after Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 election.

» READ MORE: Trump is front and center in Pennsylvania’s race for governor. Will it stay that way?

Democrats and progressive activists say the stakes are especially high for people of color, who often face the most significant barriers to voting — including long lines at polling places — and who are more likely than white voters to lack government ID. Voter fraud is already exceedingly rare.

“Those are attempts at turning the hands of time back in Pennsylvania,” said Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. “I’m sad to see that there is a spirit that has been released over the last five years in our country, that is a spirit that is being allowed to raise it’s head again. It’s racist, it’s bigoted, it’s evil.”

Republicans say Democrats, including President Joe Biden, are unfairly tarring vast swaths of the public who want tighter election rules, and they reject accusations of racism. Studies suggest that voter ID laws don’t have much impact on turnout, though experts say they still come with a cost since they can create more hurdles to casting a vote.

“The underlying premise behind all of this political theater is that Republicans are engaging in voter suppression all around. It is completely dishonest,” U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) told reporters this month.

Both parties have placed voting rights at the center of their gubernatorial campaigns.

On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Shapiro unveiled plans to make voting easier, including with automatic registration when anyone gets a driver’s license, preregistration for teens approaching 18, same-day registration, and early in-person voting. He pledged to make his first appointment a “pro-democracy” secretary of state.

But he didn’t rule out some form of voter ID requirements, provided they don’t decrease access to the ballot — a position taken by a number of prominent Democrats, including Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former President Barack Obama, and Wolf.

“I am willing to sit down with folks who are operating in good faith to discuss voter ID,” Shapiro said in the interview, stressing that he won’t engage with those “sharing conspiracy theories” and won’t support “any restrictive measure” that disenfranchises people.

» READ MORE: Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf says he’s no longer opposed to new voter ID rules

A Republican gubernatorial debate this month in Lawrence County, meanwhile, began with a video message from Trump, who almost immediately repeated his debunked claim about winning Pennsylvania in 2020.

During the event, the candidates pledged one-by-one to repeal Act 77, which passed with almost universal Republican support. It was largely uncontroversial until after Trump lost.

The Republicans often focused their fraud claims on Philadelphia, the backbone of both the Black and Democratic votes in the state.

“I will restore election integrity to our state — whatever it takes,” Bill McSwain, a former U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia who is running for governor, said at the debate.

Some 74% of Pennsylvania voters support an ID requirement, according to a Franklin and Marshall College poll in June, and Republicans say it’s a top tier concern for their voters.

In a statement, former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Trump ally also running for governor, vowed to repeal Act 77 and “preserve mail-in voting only for those who cannot vote on Election Day,” while requiring signature matching and identification “for every voter.”

“You have to ask yourself why Democrats oppose improving security to prevent doubts in the future,” he said.

Progressives see an effort to tamp down voter turnout.

“We believe that democracy is in peril at this moment,” said Kadida Kenner, founder of the New Pennsylvania Project, which aims to engage people who often sit out elections, especially voters of color and younger voters. “2022 is probably the most important election of your life if you care about voting rights.”

She noted how the bipartisan support for Act 77 has disintegrated, even though it won votes in 2019 from three GOP candidates for governor, including state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre).

When it was signed, Corman praised the law as an example of bipartisanship in divided government.

“Compromise has given Pennsylvanians a modernized election code that preserves the integrity of the ballot box and makes it easier for voters to choose the people who represent them,” he said in a 2019 statement.

» READ MORE: No Trump. No Wolf. No Toomey. Both parties can redefine themselves in Pennsylvania in 2022.

Now, Corman and others who voted for it in the Senate say it was implemented in ways they didn’t intend, blaming Wolf, his administration, and the state Supreme Court.

“We need to be doing everything we can to restore faith in our elections,” Corman said in a statement, promising his own plan in the coming weeks.

“The hijacked version of Act 77 is not what I voted for in October 2019,” State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), another gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement. He introduced a constitutional amendment in November to repeal key elements of the law.

Shapiro and Kenner both said voters are more likely to talk to them about everyday issues like inflation or education, but that those topics can’t be addressed if people don’t have a fair say in their government.

With all of the concerns people have, Shapiro said, people “don’t want to worry about the instability of our democracy, too.”