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Wolf vetoes GOP-led election reforms

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf Wednesday vetoed a Republican election reform bill, citing voter suppression concerns over provisions in the bill that Republicans touted as a tool to make elections secure.

The bill was a collection of national best practices that are needed to restore electoral confidence damaged by Wolf’s 2019 decertification of election machines to allow for paper documentation and by the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court rulings last year that allowed drop boxes and the counting of mail ballots that arrived up to three days after Election Day, while prohibiting the tossing of mail ballots with problematic signatures, said state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair.

Citing a crisis of voter confidence is laughable, because that is entirely the work of Republicans, whose losing presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed without evidence that his loss was based on voter fraud, despite losing 60 court cases on the matter, according to Blair County Democratic Chairwoman Gillian Kratzer, who said Wolf’s veto “had to happen.”

The development of the reform bill and the veto represent a missed opportunity, because it contained provisions that could have been the basis of a bipartisan agreement, according to Michael Coulter, professor of political science and humanities at Grove City College.

Voter confidence is critical, no matter how it might have been lost, according to Coulter and state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.

“Our elections not only need to be fair and secure, but they need to be seen as fair and secure,” Schmitt said.

Nationally, 80 million or so voters don’t believe they are, Schmitt said.

Ward has been deluged by her constituents about election security concerns — including on the street, at church and in the grocery store.

“Folks want an electoral system they can believe in,” she said.

But Democrats shouldn’t “bend over backwards to comfort Republicans on election security,” Kratzer said.

That would be like not pursuing desirable policies for fear of Republicans calling them socialists, she said.

Reportedly, the governor’s main gripe with the bill was its requirement for voter ID, but presenting identification is “a very basic principle of election security,” Ward said.

After all, people need identification to buy a six-pack of beer, to buy some medicines for colds and to get a COVID-19 vaccination, she said.

The ID provision in the bill was actually pretty flexible, allowing for multiple forms and allowing voters to sign an affidavit when they vote in person, as long as they provide the last four digits of their Social Security number, according to state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg.

“What is hindering about that?” Gregory asked rhetorically.

The only real difference from current ID requirements would be that voters would have needed to present something every time they voted in person, not just the first time they used a particular polling place, Ward said.

In addition to the Democratic concern about the ID requirement, there was also a worry about provisions that would have recalled some prerogatives from the secretary of state, who is appointed by the administration, according to Coulter.

Kratzer’s main issue with the bill was a provision that would have allowed county election workers to discard ballots based on signature matching, which is “entirely unreliable, entirely too subjective,” she said.

Provisions that would have set earlier deadlines for registering to vote and for turning in mail ballots were also problematic, even if they made things easier for county election officials, Kratzer said.

It would have been better to provide enough funding so those offices could have handled the extra work created by deadlines that are less restrictive for voters, she said.

There should have been lots to like in the bill for Democrats, including formal legislative authorization for drop boxes and early voting and a requirement that citizens shouldn’t need to wait more than 30 minutes to vote in person, Schmitt said.

That limit on waiting time would especially have helped communities of color, where complaints have originated about unreasonable long lines, Schmitt said.

Long lines aren’t justified anywhere, including in this area, said Gregory, who recalled seeing voters holding young children in Taylor Township while waiting more than two hours in November.

There were a variety of provisions ripe for bipartisan agreement, including clarification of various rules on county election workers’ pay, poll watchers, distribution of absentee ballots, police presence at polls to quell disturbances and unauthorized access to ballots, Coulter said.

The bill came out of a long series of hearings in the State Government Committee, of which Schmitt is a member.

It was “a very thorough review of changes we need,” Ward said.

The mantra for the bill was to make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Gregory said.

Oddly, statistics don’t support the concerns that underlie the Republicans’ motive for supporting the bill or the Democrats’ motive for opposing it, according to Coulter.

Those statistics show not only that there was no significant fraud involved in the casting of ballots, the Republican bugaboo; but they also show that ID requirements do not dramatically depress voter turnout, the Democratic bugaboo, according to Coulter.

“Parties have preferences on these things,” Coulter said. But those preferences don’t reflect what “the data seems to tell us,” he said.

Wolf’s veto makes it more likely that voters could ultimately approve an amendment that would enshrine a voter ID requirement in the Constitution, according to Schmitt.

Proposed by Ward, the amendment has passed the Senate.

It needs to pass the House this session and both the Senate and House again next session to land on the ballot in the 2023 primary.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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