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On back-to-back nights, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate candidates show their differences on voting rights and democracy

Between parties and candidates, the state’s Senate hopefuls vary widely on the issue.

  • Sam Dunklau
John Fetternman, Alex Khalil, Conor Lamb, Malcolm Kenyatta, Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, George Bochetto, Sean Gale, David McCormick, Mehmet Oz, Carla Sands

John Fetternman, Alex Khalil, Conor Lamb, Malcolm Kenyatta, Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, George Bochetto, Sean Gale, David McCormick, Mehmet Oz, Carla Sands

(Harrisburg) – Voting rights and democracy have become flashpoints in Pennsylvania’s major midterm election contests so far, including among candidates vying to replace outgoing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in November.

Candidates competing for their party’s nomination in the May 17 primary have taken wildly different views on issues from ballot access to government support for election operations. Both have been debated in Harrisburg and Washington D.C. in the aftermath of the 2020 election. 

The 2020 election was free, fair and secure, according to judges, state and local officials of both political parties, multiple audits and election experts. 

Yet most Republican candidates continue to say thorough election law changes are needed in response to unproven claims of malfeasance. Election experts say those are efforts designed to limit ballot access.

Following their appearances at back-to-back debates held at Dickinson College in Carlisle, WITF asked most of the major party candidates to list the specific policies they would pursue as a U.S. senator to support American institutions of democracy. 

Republicans

Republican Senate candidates all say enhancing voter identification rules at the federal level is key to keeping U.S. elections free and fair. 

Seven are competing for the nomination: celebrity personality Mehmet Oz, businessmen David McCormick and Jeff Bartos, political commentator Kathy Barnette, former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, and lawyers George Bochetto and Sean Gale.

Perceived flaws in identification rules are front and center for GOP candidates, even though a number of experts and investigations have all concluded U.S. elections are already secure.

Pennsylvanians already have to show a government-issued ID or part of their Social Security number when they register to vote. Yet most of the seven candidates are suggesting rules should be more strict.

After a debate at Dickinson College Tuesday night, Barnette said voters should have to show a government ID when they show up at the polling place:

“I believe voter ID should be mandatory,” Barnette said. “I believe there should be one day, we vote. That’s it.” 

Kathy Barnette takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The commentator was criticizing a 2020 move by the Department of State to extend the deadline for mail-in ballot submissions to three days after Election Day, as long as the ballot was postmarked by the time polls closed on Election Day. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court upheld that move, citing slow mail service. 

Most GOP candidates are also maligning no-excuse mail-in voting, which former President Donald Trump has partly blamed – without evidence – for his 2020 election loss.

Carla Sands, who served under Trump as an ambassador, is among them. She voted by mail in 2020 and has falsely claimed that her vote was not counted, despite public records to the contrary.

“Unless they [voters] are unwell and need to vote absentee, they should vote in-person on election day. It’s a great way to stop fraud,” Sands said.

Carla Sands takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvanians were able to vote by mail without an excuse in the last two elections – and there is no evidence of widespread fraud. 

Sean Gale said in an email that he’d vote to ban no-excuse mail-in voting as a U.S. Senator, noting such a move would be necessary to conduct an election and count returns in a single day. The counting of ballots after election night is routine, regardless of the volume of mail-in ballots.

Sean Gale takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

He left Tuesday’s debate before reporters were able to ask him questions in-person.

“Doing so requires…mandating voter identification, ending no-excuse mail-in voting and restoring traditional absentee voting that is predicated on a documented excuse,” Gale wrote.

Jeff Bartos took a different approach, choosing to focus on what role he believes the federal government should play in elections.

“I support voter ID, but I don’t believe the United States Senate or Congress should be interfering in the election laws of the states,” Bartos said, pointing to a section of the U.S. Constitution that requires states to craft their own election laws.

Jeff Bartos takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Lawyer George Bochetto said he also supports expanding voter ID rules. But he added he’d also back part of a bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The measure, supported by Democrats and some Republicans, would require states with histories of voter suppression to preclear their voting rules with federal lawmakers.

“I support having a uniform national rule, at least at a baseline of what some of the fundamental requirements ought to be,” Bochetto said. “If that’s part of the John Lewis bill, that part I would support.”

George Bochetto takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Celebrity Mehmet Oz said during a different debate he will not let claims about the 2020 election go, but did not give his stance on voter I-D. Businessman David McCormick, who also skipped Tuesday’s debate in Carlisle, said a stricter voter ID rule is the “most important” voting law change lawmakers can make.

Democrats

Four candidates are competing in the Democratic primary: Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), Jenkintown councilwoman Alexandria Khalil, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-17). 

Though all have broadly said they’d look for ways to prop up voting rights, each has a different take on the issue.

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Fetterman, for instance, argues social media companies shoulder much of the blame for allowing false election fraud claims to spread. Fetterman defended the Wolf administration’s handling of that election amid baseless claims of voter fraud and malfeasance.

“We as a society have to adopt appropriate legislation to make sure that we are not in a position where we allow misinformation, the viral unchecked spread of misinformation, to destabilize our democracy,” Fetterman said.

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Pa. state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta speaks during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Kenyatta touted an eight-point plan following Monday’s debate in Carlisle – which includes passing the now-stalled John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

States controlled by both parties, including certain counties in Florida and California, had to get federal approval for their voting laws until the Supreme Court threw out the rule in a 2013 decision. Last year, Florida approved a bill that restricted how voters could apply for ballots and use drop boxes. That law was overturned in March by a federal judge. 

Some Republicans argue it’s unconstitutional for Congress to control how states run their elections, which Kenyatta rejects.

“We need to go as far as the Constitution allows us to go, and it allows us to set a floor [for elections] that states have to follow,” Kenyatta said.

Joe Hermitt / PennLive

Alexandria Khalil speaks during the Pa. Democratic primary debate for U.S. Senate held at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022.

Khalil is arguing the best defense for democracy lies in strengthening Pennsylvania’s local press corps – which she said have been gutted by corporate takeovers. In the last few years, companies like Alden Global Capital have bought news organizations including the Morning Call in the Lehigh Valley.

“I would sit back and do what I can toward antitrust, to make sure they’re not buying up all local media. There’s a lot we can do,” Khalil said.

Lamb said he’s the only candidate who has backed bills addressing voting rights and ballot access, including the Freedom to Vote Act. Lamb explained after Monday’s debate that the bill is full of ideas he endorses. Senate Republicans moved to block debate on the proposal late last year.  

“You’re talking about Election Day as a national holiday, automatic voter registration, lots of money to stop election subversion by foreign actors [and] domestic actors.” 

Almost half of Democratic primary voters polled by Franklin & Marshall College this month remain undecided. None of the candidates on the Republican side have a clear lead in the polls either.

The Franklin and Marshall survey as well as a poll of primary voters by Nexstar, Emerson College Polling, and The Hill show between 50 percent and two thirds of Republicans have not committed to a candidate yet.

The primary is May 17, and is only open to voters who are registered political party members.

 

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