This report was written by Walker Bragman and David Sirota
In late 2019, Pennsylvania Republicans were publicly lauding themselves as proponents of voting by mail after they helped pass a bill to expand the state’s absentee ballot system.
Their bipartisan legislation “serves to preserve the integrity of every election and lift the voice of every voter in the commonwealth,” said GOP House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, who appeared at the bill signing ceremony with the state’s Democratic governor. Eight of the bill’s nine sponsors were Republicans.
Less than a year later, however, the Pennsylvania Republican Party is suddenly working overtime to try to limit the state’s vote-by-mail system — they are aiming to limit ballot dropboxes, throw out ballots that are not properly enveloped, and stop clerks from counting votes properly postmarked ballots that arrive shortly after election day, even as the Trump-controlled U.S. Postal Service has warned Pennsylvania that ballots put in the mail on time may not arrive by election day.
All of these moves come amid fears that the party will try to use its power in the legislature to shift electors to Trump in the event of a close election result.
Pennsylvania Republicans’ abrupt change of posture on voting was not prompted by any evidence of voter fraud in subsequent elections — the state’s June primaries saw a big increase in turnout, which was the entire point of Republicans’ vote-by-mail legislation.
The only thing that’ changed is the political topography: President Donald Trump — who won Pennsylvania in 2016 and sees it as a must-win state in 2020 — is now trailing in state polls. Consequently, Trump’s campaign is trying to stop vote-by-mail from increasing turnout, given that far more Democratic voters than GOP voters are requesting mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. Already, more than 2 million absentee ballots have been requested in the state — 70 percent from Democrats.
For their part, Republicans have argued in court that there has been a “hazardous, hurried, and illegal implementation of unmonitored mail-in voting which provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.”
Democrats counter that the GOP is simply trying to use unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in order to justify an effort to deliberately suppress the vote.
“We have a sitting president of the United States of America suing to make it harder for people to vote -- he wants fewer people to vote and he's trying to silence voices that he doesn't want to hear,” Pennsylvania’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro told The Daily Poster. “The central argument by President Trump and his enablers is there is all kinds of fraud in Pennsylvania, so we can't trust the system. So we said, okay Mr. President, put up or shut up -- demonstrate the fraud. And they demonstrated no fraud.”
GOP Goes From Promoting Democracy To Asking The Supreme Court To Limit It
In 2019, a hard-won compromise package between the Republican-controlled legislature and Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, made a number of sweeping electoral reforms.
The law, Act 77, established no-excuse mail-in voting and allowed mailed ballots to be submitted as early as 50 days before the election and received as late as 8 p.m. on election day. The previous deadline for receipt was 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election, which was “the most restrictive in the country,” according to a Pennsylvania GOP House press release. The legislation also extended the voter registration deadline to up to 15 days before elections — it was previously 30 days — and eliminated straight ticket voting.
Republicans expressed pride in their accomplishment.
“Ultimately, this is the most significant modernization of our elections code in decades,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said after the bill passed both legislative houses.
“While the election code has been updated periodically over the years, this is the biggest and most historic change in how Pennsylvanians cast votes since the election code was enacted in 1937,” Corman added in a press release. “In advancing a package of election modernizations, we will preserve the integrity of the ballot box, while at the same time making it easier for voters to choose the people who represent them at all levels of government.”
Today, however, the GOP’s tune has changed. With a surge of mail-in ballots expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump consistently behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls, Republicans across the country have taken steps to make voting more difficult. In Texas, for example, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott made headlines when he announced he was reducing the number of ballot drop-off locations to one-per-county.
In Pennsylvania too, Republicans have set about trying to tighten rules surrounding mail-in voting.
In late June, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging some of the practices employed during Pennsylvania’s primary, including easing some long-standing restrictions on the eligibility of out-of-county poll watchers; the use of dropboxes for mailed-in ballots; and the counting of so-called “naked ballots,” or those that lack the dual-envelope protection required by the 2019 election reform law, by some of the state’s boards of elections.
They also sought a hard ban on counting ballots that arrived after election day even though in August, the U.S. Postal Service, following operational changes made by Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — a prolific Republican fundraiser with no relevant experience for the position — sent the state a letter claiming that it could not guarantee the timely delivery of ballots for November’s election given the current deadline.
That letter prompted Pennsylvania’s Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to ask the state Supreme Court to allow timely-mailed ballots to be counted up to three days after the election. The state Democratic Party brought its own lawsuit in state court.
Late last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — which has a Democratic majority — sided with Republicans to toss naked ballots, but it also upheld the use of dropboxes and extended the deadline for counting ballots received up to three days after the election so long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
“By legislating from the bench, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that injected chaos into the General Election by creating election procedures not found anywhere in current law and ensuring Pennsylvania—and thereby the nation—will not have reliable results on Election Day,” Republican House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said in statement responding to the decision.
Corman and fellow Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati sought to appeal the decision on the deadline extension, but their request was denied. Last week, their lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and stop that order.
"In a year where there is a very real possibility that the final presidential election result hinges on Pennsylvania, the new rules imposed by the decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (a body elected in partisan elections) could destroy the American public's confidence in the electoral system as a whole," their lawyers wrote in their filing.
The Supreme Court this week intervened in South Carolina after Democrats successfully petitioned a lower court to suspend the state’s witness requirement for mail-in ballots. If the high court similarly intervenes in Pennsylvania to help Republicans, it could severely limit the ability of mail-in voters to have their votes counted.
GOP Legislators Fight to Limit Pre-Canvassing, Set Up Committee To Monitor Election
During the presidential debate last week, Trump took aim at Philadelphia, claimed that “bad things happen” there, referencing a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging that Trump ballots had been discarded, as well as reports that a poll watcher had been denied entry into an early polling site in accordance with the law.
In response, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution to create a committee with wide-ranging powers to audit the vote, including subpoena power over election officials and members of the U.S. Postal Service during the vote counting process.
Meanwhile, Wolf has come out in support of a pre-canvassing plan, which would allow ballot counting to begin as early as three weeks ahead of the election, and prevent county clerks from being overwhelmed and delaying the release of full results.
Republicans in the state House have countered with their own plan to allow officials to start counting just three days ahead of the election.
If there are enough delays in counting votes, the state could run up against the Dec. 8 “safe harbor” deadline to submit Pennsylvania electors to the electoral college — a situation that could allow for a Republican power play, according to a recent report by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic.
“According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority,” Gellman reported. “In Pennsylvania, three Republican leaders told me they had already discussed the direct appointment of electors among themselves, and one said he had discussed it with Trump’s national campaign.”
Photo credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images
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