Gov. Tom Wolf plans to appoint Leigh M. Chapman, a lawyer who leads a nonprofit that promotes mail voting, to be the state’s next top elections official, tasking her with overseeing a midterm election cycle that will bring national scrutiny to Pennsylvania while the state fends off continued GOP attacks stemming from the 2020 presidential election.
Chapman will become acting secretary of the commonwealth on Jan. 8, Wolf announced Monday. She previously served as policy director in the agency she will soon head, the Department of State, from 2015 to 2017.
“Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure that voting rights are protected, and to improve access to the ballot box,” Chapman said. “I look forward to continuing that work in my new role, and to build on the tremendously successful election reforms in Pennsylvania over the last several years.”
Chapman will replace Veronica Degraffenreid, who received praise from Wolf for overseeing the office in an acting capacity following the February resignation of the last permanent secretary, Kathy Boockvar.
Wolf originally intended to elevate Degraffenreid to a permanent role in the office but withdrew the nomination after she clashed with Senate Republicans over their controversial review of the 2020 presidential election. She will become a special adviser to Wolf after Chapman takes over the department.
Wolf’s announcement Monday was silent on whether he intended Chapman to assume the secretary role on a permanent basis, which would require legislative confirmation.
“She will be acting secretary, where she will be able to perform the full duties and responsibilities of a confirmed secretary,” Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said in a separate statement.
The chain of events leading to Chapman’s appointment began with Boockvar, who oversaw the implementation of Pennsylvania’s 2019 mail voting law, which was passed with bipartisan support and administered the presidential election cycle amid the coronavirus pandemic. Decisions she made around mail balloting became the target of GOP attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, fueled by false statements by former President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters.
She resigned unexpectedly months later due to an unrelated issue when it was revealed that her office bungled the administration of a referendum to extend the statute of limitations for civil claims filed by child sex abuse victims against their abusers. The Department of State is required to advertise state constitutional amendments before they are placed on the ballot but failed to do so in time for the 2021 primary.
Chapman, 37, who earned her law degree from Howard University and her undergraduate from the University of Virginia, has previously worked for the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf and for the nonprofits Let America Vote, the Advancement Project, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Chapman’s appointment may draw objections from Republicans because she will be rejoining state government after serving as executive director of Deliver My Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that helps voters obtain mail ballots and researches the impact of voting by mail.
The group’s website lists Brian Dunn as a founder. He is a partner in a firm called Field Strategies, which on its website says it “has been instrumental in securing victories for Democratic Presidents, Governors, U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives and statewide ballot initiatives” and runs voter registration and “vote-by-mail signup drives, helping to reshape the electorate favorably for Democratic causes.”
Although Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass the state’s mail balloting law before the pandemic, it became a partisan issue largely thanks to Trump baselessly questioning whether voting by mail allowed Democrats to steal the election from him. Trump’s lies about mail balloting have caused many GOP voters to abandon voting by mail despite using it in the past in roughly equal numbers as Democrats.
In 2020, more than 2.6 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in the presidential election, while fewer than 300,000 voted by mail in 2016, before the law took effect. Most of the growth was in Democratic ballots, analysts say.
Further complicating matters for Chapman, the department she will soon lead is still facing attacks from Republicans over the 2020 election, with GOP lawmakers in the state Senate pursuing a controversial review of the results.
“I have full confidence that Leigh M. Chapman will continue the Department’s efforts to lead Pennsylvania through a smooth election process and ensure that Pennsylvania voters continue to experience free and fair elections, among many responsibilities,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement.
That scrutiny is likely to increase next year, as Pennsylvania voters will pick a new governor and U.S. senator and play a key role in deciding control of Congress. Additionally, state leaders are hashing out new district maps for the legislature and U.S. House delegation.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly did not return requests for comment Monday.