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Everybody wants to change Pennsylvania election law, but mistrust is high

Lawmakers in Harrisburg want to change how Pennsylvania elections are run. They just don’t agree on how. Or why.

Demonstrators gather on Nov. 4 outside Philadelphia City Hall.
Demonstrators gather on Nov. 4 outside Philadelphia City Hall.Read moreCharles Fox / File Photograph

Lawmakers in Harrisburg want to change how Pennsylvania elections are run.

They just don’t agree on how. Or why.

In the wake of a contentious but smoothly run presidential election — and a year after the state’s largest electoral overhaul in generations — lawmakers from across the political spectrum say more reform is needed to address lessons learned last year and to shore up the system for the future. Republicans who control the legislature have signaled that election law will be a top priority this year.

But President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud and desperate efforts to overturn his loss to Joe Biden have poisoned the debate and thrust voting into the center of America’s culture wars. Trump’s latest sure-to-fail gambit: Get Congress to block Biden’s Electoral College victory when it convenes Wednesday to certify the results.

GOP leaders in Harrisburg say they want to examine what happened and work with Democrats to improve state law. The House State Government Committee has already begun a months-long review. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) last month announced he’s establishing a bipartisan Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform.

“We can all put our heads in the sand, and half of the state thinks [the election] was legitimate and half of the state thinks it wasn’t legitimate, and that’s not good for democracy,” Corman said in an interview. “Information’s a good thing. The more information that gets out there, the better, so I think transparency in our election process is important.”

Democrats are skeptical. They fear Republicans are more interested in relitigating this election and conducting a witch-hunt of state and county officials in a bid to appease a GOP base that Trump has inflamed with unproven and outlandish tales of a vast conspiracy to steal the election.

“We have to be extra vigilant” amid “wild accusations of fraud based on no facts,” State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election by Trump and his allies

There is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania’s presidential election. Trump’s campaign itself hasn’t presented any such evidence in its numerous legal challenges contesting the result. Rather, its legal efforts have been aimed at disqualifying votes that all evidence shows were legitimately cast under rules they disagree with. The postelection controversy has been stirred almost entirely by unfounded claims of fraud.

But as Trump refuses to concede, he and his allies have engaged in what amounts to a massive disinformation campaign that delegitimizes Biden’s win. Republicans have been forced to choose whether to follow Trump’s lead in the last days of his presidency.

In Pennsylvania, 64 GOP lawmakers last month asked Congress to reject the state’s electors and effectively disenfranchise millions of voters. As Republicans with aspirations for higher office look ahead to open-seat gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in 2022, they have an incentive to continue disputing Trump’s loss. Last week, more than a dozen lawmakers endorsed an “analysis” that purported to show errors in Pennsylvania’s vote count — though they didn’t disclose the specifics of their methodology or data sources. The Pennsylvania Department of State said the “analysis” was fatally flawed, but Trump promoted it on Twitter as evidence of electoral malfeasance.

It’s all helped create a toxic environment in Harrisburg, in which the two parties don’t agree on the basic facts, let alone how to move forward. While GOP leaders say they want a bipartisan review of the election to guide policy-making, many rank-and-file Republicans appear more focused on claims of fraud, leading Democrats to question whether the effort is being made in good faith.

» READ MORE: 2020 was an ugly year in Harrisburg. Don’t expect 2021 to be much better.

“He lost. There are only two words, the same way Hillary Clinton lost four years ago,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Phila.) said of the need to understand what happened in this election. “We’re not looking for two years to audit an election that’s clear someone lost and someone won, which is what happens every election in the United States of America.”

The GOP push to reexamine voting laws isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. In Georgia, another battleground state Trump lost, Republicans are proposing legislation that would require absentee voters to produce photo ID.

Corman said he discussed the new committee with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), prior to announcing its creation.

“I don’t go in with any preconceived notions,” Corman said. He said the committee, which will hold hearings and recommend changes, will have equal representation between the two parties and won’t produce legislation itself: “I don’t know how to be more fair than to have four on each side and allow them all to sit there and listen to the same testimony together.”

That’s a stark contrast with November’s hearing in Gettysburg, where a committee composed solely of Republicans gave Trump a platform to air grievances about the election. The lawmaker who led the hearing, State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), declared the future of “the republic is at stake.”

» READ MORE: A Pa. senator gets a political boost from pushing Trump’s false election claims — with 2022 in sight

Costa said in an interview that he would need to speak with his caucus before deciding whether Democrats will participate. But he added that existing committees in both chambers could handle any necessary review.

Hughes said Democrats wouldn’t be interested in “participating in any kind of witch-hunt,” noting that Republicans have repeatedly attacked Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar over guidance she issued to counties before the election. (Corman himself called on Election Day for Boockvar to resign.)

“We’re not going to entertain or participate in anything that’s going to be a kangaroo court where people are publicly vilified … for doing their public duty,” Hughes added.

Partisanship isn’t new when it comes to voting and elections: Republicans cite fraud in focusing on election security and integrity, while Democrats focus on expanding access. Studies have repeatedly shown that voter fraud is exceptionally rare.

Democrats continue to push for changes such as “same-day” voter registration on Election Day, “automatic” voter registration when people visit the DMV, and reduced barriers to voting by mail. Republicans hope to tighten the mail voting process by instituting requirements such as signature verification, and to implement voter ID verification for in-person voting. Some Republicans say they want to go as far as to undo the new mail voting law altogether, returning Pennsylvania to a highly restrictive absentee voting system.

Republicans say they’ve been inundated with calls from constituents concerned about the integrity of the election. A thorough review will help reassure the public it can have confidence in the process, they say.

Of course, the erosion of public confidence in the election has been fueled by Trump and his allies. The reality, according to elections administrators and nonpartisan experts, is Pennsylvania’s election went smoothly, especially amid a pandemic and given that it was the first year any voter could vote by mail.

That change was the result of a 2019 law passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Act 77 enshrined the biggest changes to the state’s Election Code since its creation in 1937, and some lawmakers point to it as evidence that bipartisanship is possible.

“I think we can get to a compromise,” said Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), who has been chairing the House committee with jurisdiction over elections. He also pointed to this year’s Act 12, which delayed the primary until June and made other changes in election administration: “We did both of those with bipartisan votes.”

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

But the political environment has degraded since, thanks partly to bitter fighting over pandemic restrictions and the election. While Republican leaders and Wolf negotiated over the summer of 2019 to reach a deal on Act 77, they spent this summer talking but ultimately failing to reach an agreement on allowing counties to open mail ballots before Election Day.

Instead, both sides took shots at the other in public, with Wolf and Boockvar criticizing Republicans and calling for a deal on what’s known as “pre-canvassing.” Corman later said Republicans — who conditioned a deal on other policy proposals — “didn’t have faith in the secretary, that she wouldn’t figure out a way to tip the scale in her favor.”

That’s why the world was left waiting for days as Pennsylvania slowly counted 2.6 million mail ballots mostly cast for Biden, creating the illusion that Trump had a big lead on election night and opening the door for claims of malfeasance.

The question is whether lawmakers can move on and take a clear-eyed look at improving elections, said Ray Murphy, deputy director of PA Voice and coordinator of the Keystone Votes coalition of nonprofit and advocacy groups.

“Can we have a conversation moving forward that’s kind of grounded in logic, and data, and not weighed down by partisan interests on either side?” he said. “Some of this was really inflated emotions. There are a lot of feelings. Is that momentum going to continue? I don’t know.”