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Democrats oppose election code bill on track for party-line passage after late-summer stalemate

A controversial provision would allow campaigns to assign poll watchers anywhere in the state

  • Emily Previti
Butler County Bureau of Elections staff processes mailed ballots May 28, 2020, in Butler, Pa., ahead of the presidential primary June 2.

 Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Butler County Bureau of Elections staff processes mailed ballots May 28, 2020, in Butler, Pa., ahead of the presidential primary June 2.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Dauphin County elections director Jerry Feaser’s last name. 

(Harrisburg) — The Republican-majority state House of Representatives is expected to vote along party lines Wednesday to pass an election code reform bill opposed by Democratic legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf is against House Bill 2626, in part, because the measure “makes it harder, not easier, for citizens to vote,” according to his spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger.

“He again calls for the legislature to act on a limited number of priorities to ensure that every vote will be counted, guarantee results will be known in a timely manner, and afford counties flexibility in staffing in-person polling locations,” Kensinger wrote in an email Tuesday.

As amended Tuesday, HB2626 would require counties to start sending out ballots earlier and finalizing counts sooner. But it also would let counties start processing mailed ballots the Saturday ahead of Election Day, much later than the three weeks in the original version of the measure, a timeline favored by election directors.

County voting chiefs also want permission to assign poll workers anywhere in their home county – and that’s in the bill. But so is a more controversial provision allowing campaigns to assign poll watchers anywhere in the state, the same relief sought in a federal lawsuit by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

“Allowing people to come from counties, all across the Commonwealth into places like Philadelphia, which is what this exception is created to do, will try to have the intended effect of trying to intimidate people from using their right to vote. We have seen these tactics before,” said Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) Tuesday during floor debate over amendments. “That’s why the Voting Rights Act struck down a lot of these things.”

Into the courts 

HB2626 also calls for a mailed ballot application deadline 15 days before the election versus a week, but doesn’t address the return deadline. Currently, that’s Election Day.

Counties have been asking since 2014 for more time between the mailed ballot application and return deadlines, according to Dauphin’s election chief Jerry Feaser. 

The U.S. Postal Service sent missives in 2016 similar to its warnings this summer that delivery standards aren’t in line with many states’ mailed ballot turnaround expectations, former deputy postmaster general Ronald Stroman said recently.  

Voting rights organizations have sued over that issue before. 

And shortly after its Aug. 1 recommendation for a three-day extension, the Department of State decided to seek more time through litigation.

DoS didn’t initiate the lawsuits, but has leveraged its position as a respondent to get matters into the hands of the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court. Pa.’s top justices just agreed Tuesday to assume jurisdiction over one case (brought by the state Democratic party). The other – filed before the primary over the state’s tight mailed ballot turnaround – was up Monday before Commonwealth Court Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt. After hearing nearly 11 hours of testimony in court Monday, Leavitt is compiling a report due Friday that ultimately will help the state Supreme Court decide the case.

What’s next?

This flurry of activity in the state courts and General Assembly comes after a summer without much progress toward compromise between the GOP-led statehouse and Democratic administration. 

“They don’t care about compromise. They don’t care about doing it through legislation,” said House Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) late Tuesday. “The governor may veto this whole thing. And then, you know, the courts will have to decide it. Or the governor might by the executive order.”

Kensinger didn’t say whether Wolf would veto the measure or executive order his way around it. She didn’t respond to related follow-up questions sent late Tuesday in response to her email stating Wolf’s opposition to HB2626.

The bill also would make it clear voters can drop off mailed ballots at their polling places on Election Day, in addition to county courthouses and election offices.

Democrats wanted additional provisions for satellite election offices where voters could apply for mailed ballots and cast them early – but that’s not in the bill. 


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