The battle to shape public opinion over Pennsylvania Republicans’ proposed election overhaul intensified Thursday, as Gov. Tom Wolf called it an attack on voting rights and GOP lawmakers crashed an event in the Philadelphia suburbs to demand he negotiate.
Democrats have blasted the proposal as the latest effort by GOP-controlled legislatures across the country to appease former President Donald Trump and effectively codify his lies about a stolen election into law.
“Make no mistake, leaders of the [state] House Republican caucus are being driven by fringe conspiracy theories, and that is no way to make good policy,” Wolf said during a morning appearance in Delaware County.
Republicans call the bill an important, top-to-bottom upgrade of an election code that dates to 1937, parts of which were revised in a major 2019 law that greatly expanded mail voting. They say it would modernize elections, improve accessibility, and make them more secure.
State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chairman of the House State Government Committee and the bill’s author, came with other GOP colleagues to Wolf’s news conference in Media. He labeled the argument that “election reform is suppression” as Democrats’ own “Big Lie” — a play on how Democrats have branded Republicans’ false election claims.
“If you can’t fight on policy, make stuff up,” Grove said on Twitter, typing out tweets from the back of the room in the Delaware County courthouse where Wolf was speaking.
The showdown came two days after Republicans in the state House advanced their mammoth election legislation over Democrats’ objections. It’s set to go to the full House for a vote next week, after which it will likely head to the Senate. Republicans do not have the votes to override an expected Wolf veto.
The bill would impose stricter voter ID requirements, mandate signature verification of mail ballots, and establish six days of early in-person voting, with that provision not taking effect until 2025.
It proposes dozens of other major administrative changes, such as allowing counties to begin processing and counting mail ballots prior to Election Day, banning them from accepting private donations for election administration, restricting drop boxes, and changing deadlines for voter registration and requesting mail ballots.
Appearing with Wolf, State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) called the bill “nothing more than attempts to rebrand Jim Crow.” State Sen. Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) invoked the late civil rights icon John Lewis.
A poll released Thursday by Franklin & Marshall College found a majority of registered voters approve of some of the most notable provisions in the GOP bill. About three-quarters, including 47% of Democrats, said they strongly or somewhat favor requiring all voters show a photo ID, the survey found. Strong majorities of voters in both parties, as well as independents, also approve of signature verification of mail ballots.
House Republicans introduced the bill last week after holding 10 hearings about the state’s election infrastructure and administration. Grove has expressed frustration over the Wolf administration’s refusal to negotiate on election legislation.
After Wolf’s news conference ended, Grove told reporters he decided to attend with the hope that lawmakers can compromise with the governor.
“We’re looking to have that conversation with him and his staff to find a middle ground forward,” Grove said. “We have not had that yet.”
Grove said he had texted Wolf’s chief of staff, who walked away from negotiations in April because Wolf considers any effort to tighten voter ID requirements a nonstarter. That led Grove to draft the legislation without input from Democrats. Since then, Grove has said neither he nor Republican legislative leaders have had any contact with Wolf’s office about the bill.
In December, Grove helped organize a letter from Republican lawmakers urging Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to reject the state’s Electoral College votes for Joe Biden. The letter accused county and state elections officials, along with Wolf, of undermining state election law.
Grove has since said he accepts Biden as the legitimate winner of Pennsylvania and that his focus was on administrative and legal issues — not the baseless claims of massive voter fraud advanced by many of his colleagues.
Wolf has said that he’s willing to talk with Republicans, but that he won’t consider proposals he says would make it harder to vote. He said on Thursday that he supports some ideas in the GOP bill, including allowing counties to process mail ballots before Election Day, increasing pay for election workers, and providing funding for counties to buy electronic poll books.
The bill includes “some good changes, but it also creates some new barriers” to voting, he said.
Numerous studies of years of American elections have found no evidence of significant voter fraud.
It’s hard to predict how the legislation might impact elections. Research in multiple states has found that photo ID requirements tend to disproportionately impact people of color. But that doesn’t mean such mandates necessarily reduce turnout, as opponents mobilize against perceived attempts to restrict the vote.
Under current law, people must show proof of identification — such as a driver’s license — to register to vote. And voters must show ID the first time they cast a ballot at a new polling place.
The GOP bill would require voters to show a government-issued ID at the polls in every election. Other forms of identification such as college IDs would also be accepted, and the Pennsylvania Department of State would be required to provide a free ID to any voter who requests one.
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.