GOP, Dems say PA's voting laws are broken. Here are some changes both sides can agree on

Bruce Siwy
Erie Times-News

Dismayed with Pennsylvania Supreme Court interpretations of Act 77, Republican legislators in Harrisburg continue to call for additional changes to voting in the commonwealth.

"Right now we're a national embarrassment in elections," said state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, chair of the Pennsylvania House's State Government Committee."At some point the governor's going to have to pull his head out of the sand."

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, Grove's counterpart on the State Government Committee, said there are some common sense reforms that could enjoy bipartisan support. The problem, he added, is that many of these bills are saddled with more restrictive voting requirements found unacceptable to Gov. Tom Wolf and fellow Democrats in the General Assembly.

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"People (should) put down their swords and do what's right," Conklin said.

Here's a look at potential changes to voting in Pennsylvania, ranging from the probable to the highly unlikely.

Pre-canvassing

One point of consensus can be found on the topic of pre-canvassing.

Approval of pre-canvassing expansion would give county election officials a few days to open and flatten ballot envelopes prior to Election Day. The idea is to reduce the wait time for results.

"We've moved pre-canvassing three times so far," Grove said.

Rep. Seth Grove speaks as a surrogate for Governor candidate Scott Wager at the York College Center for Community Engagement on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Candidates night, sponsored by the York Daily Record and York College, invited all candidates in all contested local races, from governor to house representative. It was a chance for the community to get to know the candidate in a setting other than a debate.

One of those measures -- House Bill 1300 -- was rejected by Wolf in June of last year. Wolf cited the bill's inclusion of voter ID requirements and mail-in voting restrictions.

Despite setbacks on this front, Conklin expressed some optimism on the eventual approval of pre-canvassing. The minority chair of the State Government Committee said the concept enjoys fairly widespread support.

"We could break those out without loading them up with hidden things inside," Conklin said of these measures.

"I believe there's compromise if we stop the politics."

House Bill 1800, a revamped HB 1300 that Grove began shopping around for cosponsors last July, might have that compromise for pre-canvassing.

The bill allows for county boards of elections to meet at least twice before polls open on an election to pre-canvas ballots between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., provided the boards advertise the meetings and allow for poll watchers.

That would give counties up to 90 hours they currently don’t have, but the bill also puts tighter deadlines for reporting results.

Under HB 1800, counties would have until 9 p.m. on an election day to finish pre-canvassing mail-in or absentee ballots the board received up until the previous day.

For mail ballots being returned on election day, the counties would have until 2 a.m. the following morning to complete pre-canvassing.

The counties would then have just four more hours to “compute all returns” from polling places and from mail ballots that weren’t segregated due to potential problems.

Provisional ballots, contested mail ballots and military or overseas voter ballots would not be subject to those deadlines. 

Polling places typically open at 7 a.m. on an election day in Pennsylvania, which would give counties a deadline of less than 24 hours to report results.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-77th Dist.

Purging voter rolls

Measures aimed at more quickly removing the names of the dead from election databases have also seen support from both Republicans and Democrats.

According to Grove, there's legislation in the state Senate to further the use of the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center, aka ERIC. This system tracks voters who died and those who have duplicate registrations across 31 states and the District of Columbia. It can allow officials to "request a report identifying voters who appear to have voted twice within the state in the prior federal election, voted in more than one state in the prior federal election, or who voted on behalf of a deceased voter in the prior federal election."

"You want clean records," Grove said.

He added that ERIC can help eliminate potential oversights. He said one election director he spoke to was aware of only 1 out of 100 voter deaths that had occurred in his precinct.

While Pennsylvania has been one of ERIC's member states since 2016, the group's name is not codified into the commonwealth's election code currently available online.

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House Bill 2507 -- sponsored by Grove, with Conklin as first co-sponsor -- would permit the use of ERIC data to purge the dead from voter lists. Conklin's bipartisan amendment to this would formally allow counties to use state-licensed funeral home records, county coroner records and local death records for this purpose as well.

Conklin said he believes taking these steps can help tamp down unfounded conspiracy theoriesabout Pennsylvania's elections.

This bill is now in committee on the Senate side.

"Counties do not engage in voter 'purges.' They do conduct regular voter list maintenance through statutory voter removal programs to identify voters who may no longer be qualified to vote at the address on their voter registration record," said Mark Walters of the Pennsylvania Department of State. "This list maintenance is done in a uniform and nondiscriminatory way to ensure that voters are not removed without notice and an opportunity to update their record.

"In addition to ongoing voter list maintenance activities, counties are authorized to remove deceased voters when they obtain official confirmation that a voter is deceased. The voter registration law is very specific in terms of the sources of data that can be used to cancel deceased voters.  Except for a court-authorized one-time use in 2021, county voter registration commissions have not been able to use the data obtained from ERIC to cancel deceased voters’ registrations, even though the data is reliable."

Walters noted that the department supports House Bill 2507, which would allow for full participation in ERIC and make full use of the data to support list maintenance efforts.

Act 77

Grove said the GOP is waiting for the Supreme Court to a rule on a challenge to Act 77 before looking to repeal it. He called it a "litigation hold."

Passed by Republicans and a handful of Democrats in 2019, Act 77 required paper trails for voting machines and eliminated straight-party voting.

But several Republicans have expressed outrage with recent court rulings that allowed for the counting of ballots received three days after Election Day, ballots mailed without a postmark and ballots without a verified signature. An emergency motion is in place to keep the act in effect until the court justices reach a decision on whether it's constitutional.

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Conklin said he was among the Democrats who voted against the bill. He characterized it as an unsound piece of legislation.

"It had too many undefined sections in it," he said.

Regarding the straight-party voting topic, Conklin said he wouldn't be surprised if straight-party voting would be prohibited again through legislation even if Act 77 is repealed.

Mail-in voting

Tied in with Act 77 is the issue of whether no-excuse, or early, mail-in voting can continue.

Conklin said it's difficult for some to make it to the polls on Election Day. He cited those who older, have disabilities or live in areas without public transit, as well as those with intense or out-of-town work schedules.

"That would be a political battle," he said of legislative efforts to restrict mail-in voting.

Voter ID

Another alteration less likely to be enacted is an increase to voter ID requirements. Grove said Senate Bill 106 proposes this change and other constitutional amendments.

He added that this is part of an effort to give Pennsylvania the "gold standard" in election security and integrity.

But according to Conklin, most Democrats believe enough safeguards are already in place. He noted that those who plan to vote by mail already show ID upon receiving an application.

"Voter ID is a problem that's not occurring," he said. "When folks say there's fraud, they can't show you any fraud."

The Associated Press reported Monday that the Senate has approved a bill that orders a number of changes to state laws over partisan election observers in polling places and election offices.

The bill passed by a vote of 30-19, according to the AP, with every Republican and one Democrat backing it. But Wolf released a statement indicating the governor's strong opposition to it.

This bill would raise the number of partisan poll watchers allowed into each polling place during voting and give them access to “any facility where votes are collected” and also would remove the county residency requirement in state law for certified poll watchers, freeing them to come from anywhere in the state. The AP reported that another provision in the bill would allow those who are certified to watch election workers processing mail-in or absentee ballots to “have a clear line of sight to view and hear the proceedings at a distance of six feet or less.”

Trump's campaign has lost state and federal court battles in this regard over its complaints that observers weren't allowed to be close enough to scrutinize mail-in ballots as they were being processed in heavily Democratic areas such as Philadelphia and Allegheny County.

Independents in the primary

Giving independents the ability to vote in primaries is also a long shot.

Though Conklin said he supports this idea -- "if you are a citizen of the United States, you should have a vote in the primary" -- he believes it would be difficult to muster votes in both parties. He added that it could be challenging to manage logistically at the polls.

He said the upside, however, could be the emergence of fewer far-right and far-left candidates from the primaries.

Grove said he hasn't been approached by anyone in the House with this idea.

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA Today Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com. Reporter Chris Ullery contributed to this story.