This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
HARRISBURG — Local officials charged with implementing any changes lawmakers might make to Pennsylvania’s Election Code are begging Democrats and Republicans to work together, a request that seems increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled given the parties’ continued partisan tensions, especially over voting rights.
The division and hostility was on full display last week as the House State Government Committee wrapped up the last of 10 election oversight meetings, which Chairman Seth Grove (R., York) framed as a necessary endeavor following the 2020 election, but which Democrats have attacked as political theater and a cover for voter suppression.
“It was a deep mockery, in fact, a sad mockery of the hardworking election officials that carried out and executed our elections across all 67 counties,” Minority Chair Margo Davidson (D., Delaware) said at the end of Thursday’s meeting. “Confidence in our elections has been destroyed by the very people that lament its destruction.”
Five current and former election officials and commissioners told Spotlight PA and Votebeat they were skeptical when the meetings were first announced. But ultimately, they were impressed with the thorough and detailed testimony from nine local election directors, five current and former election officials from other states, and dozens of experts and consultants during the four-month review.
“It’s very easy for all of this to get filtered through some sort of political lens, but in my experience, the members of the committee have been very thoughtful about what they are trying to do. It’s been kind of a nonpolitical process,” said Mercer County Elections Director Thad Hall, who testified at two of the hearings.
Now, election officials must wait to see if there’s bipartisan consensus around their two priorities: getting more time to process, or pre-canvass, mail ballots before Election Day, and shifting deadlines for people to register to vote and apply for a mail ballot to give election workers more time to prepare.
“At some point, we’re all going to have to start working together to figure out the path forward,” said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “None of this happens without 26 votes in the Senate, 102 votes in the House, and the governor’s signature.”
And they’re hoping they’ll be called upon to help write those new laws they say are sorely needed — and fast.
“If we want to have any changes that we can implement for the November election, we absolutely agree that the hard work needs to be done now,” Schaefer said, adding that September is the cut-off for implementing big adjustments.
Grove, who as chair of the State Government Committee will serve as the gatekeeper for all proposed election changes in the House, has been tight-lipped about the specifics of any reforms he wants. He said whatever changes he supports will be in the name of election integrity and strengthening voter confidence.
“We aren’t necessarily in a rush to start drafting” legislation, he told Spotlight PA and Votebeat Thursday, adding he planned to review all the testimony from the meetings and hoped to consider legislation at the end of May or beginning of June.
The Senate is doing a similar review of the 2020 election and is taking public comments until April 30.
GOP priorities slowly emerge
A Spotlight PA and Votebeat review of Grove’s comments during the meetings and press conferences shows he’s open to some changes county elections officials have asked for, including moving the voter registration deadline back from 15 days to 30 days before Election Day to give workers more time to process the registrations.
The deadline was moved up in 2019 as part of the bipartisan Act 77 that enacted no-excuse mail voting. Democrats and good-government groups like the League of Women Voters applauded the move, saying it was more “voter-friendly”.
Grove has also indicated that he wants broader photo ID laws — Pennsylvania only requires people who have changed their address or are voting for the first time in person to show a photo ID — and for counties to compare voter signatures on mail ballots to registration records.
In October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously found there are no provisions in the state’s Election Code that specifically require counties to match voters’ signatures, and ruled that ballots couldn’t be rejected for that reason.
The State Government Committee heard from election officials in Arizona and Colorado, both of which require mail ballots signatures to match the voter’s registration record. Signature checkers must go through extensive training.
Groups like the National Vote at Home Institute recommend the practice if it’s done through software or trained bipartisan teams, and if it allows voters to fix their ballots when signatures don’t match. Some states keep multiple images of voters’ signatures on file for comparison, since signatures change over time.
Nov. 3 was the first general election in which Pennsylvanians were allowed to cast a ballot by mail without an excuse, and more than 2.6 million people voted this way as an alternative to visiting the polls during the pandemic.
But counties can’t start opening and processing mail ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day, which meant final election results weren’t available until days later. As counties worked overtime to count mail ballots, President Donald Trump and his allies cast doubt on the validity of those ballots, falsely claiming Democrats were “stealing” the election.
While nearly every county official has said they want more time to process mail ballots ahead of Election Day — and some Republicans have been open to the idea — Grove hasn’t said whether he supports such a move, only saying during a press conference that he wants “outcomes on election night.”
While several Republicans have filed legislation reversing the no-excuse mail voting law enacted in 2019, Grove hasn’t said whether he’ll support that. During one post-meeting press conference, he said the popularity of Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law was likely due to COVID-19 concerns, and that “hopefully COVID-19 goes away and people will end up potentially not using mail-in ballots so often and heading back to their polls.”
‘Easy to vote and hard to cheat’
Any reforms will still need the approval of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who supports pre-canvassing and opposes eliminating mail voting and requiring photo ID.
Ray Murphy, who heads a coalition of voting rights groups called Keystone Votes, said there appeared to be a clear list of noncontroversial changes to the Election Code that everyone seemed to agree on.
“Do they want another bipartisan law to get made, or another bullet point where they wanted to do something and Wolf didn’t want to do it?” he said, referring to a previous effort by House Republicans that tied greater pre-canvassing to banning drop boxes.
Throughout the hearings, Grove and other Republican committee members insisted a review was needed to make it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
It’s a line that has become somewhat of a catchphrase among other Republican-controlled state legislatures who cite Trump’s false claims of election fraud as a reason to restrict voting.
The phrase has been invoked by GOP elected officials in Georgia and Texas, two states that have restricted or are pursuing restrictions to voting access. And it’s been frequently used by the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Election Integrity Commission, whose “best practices” report published earlier this month includes recommendations to require a photo ID and signature verification, which voting rights advocates say restrict a person’s ability to cast a ballot.
Alexa Grant, a program advocate with the good-government group Common Cause PA, said there’s no basis for the “hard to cheat” part of the statement.
“We’re just not seeing the stories to back up these accusations on the ground,” she said. “Voters have proven that they can use this system, that there’s not some nefarious actor that’s trying to change the system.”
Republicans, including Trump, filed numerous lawsuits after the election alleging various degrees of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and other states. State and federal judges rejected most of those lawsuits.
Grove, who signed a December letter urging Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to object to Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes for President Joe Biden, told ABC27 that he “personally never doubted … the outcome of the election.”
On Thursday, he said the election oversight meetings were a “wild success” and he looked forward to working with election officials and the groups who testified to develop legislation.
Still, that consensus election officials are hoping for may be out of reach.
“Based on my colleagues’ comments at the end of this, the things they’ve said, I’m not sure they are interested in bipartisanship at this point,” Grove said.
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