State Lawmakers to Take Up Election Law Changes Next Week as Window for Action Closes

(Image: Timothy Rezendes via Creative Commons)

Next Tuesday, the State Government Committee of the Pennsylvania Senate will once again take up the election bill that Republicans tried to rush through unexpectedly last week. The last-minute committee meeting violated notice requirements, so the passage of the Republican election bill was voided and they had to reschedule the vote. 

November 3rd is only 53 days away, but critical questions remain about how county Boards of Elections will administer some of the more technical aspects of the General Election, which will be the first in Pennsylvania to includes a combination of satellite, mail and in-person voting. Some of that uncertainty is a function of the new voting options, but much of it is tangled up in proposed legislative fixes which appear increasingly unlikely to be enacted. 

Republican State Senators introduced a bill which would tackle the major consensus items like pre-canvassing mail ballots, but also would eliminate early voting options like dropboxes and county satellite offices that Democrats say would be a dealbreaker. 

The bill is expected to pass out of committee again, although Governor Wolf has said he will veto it if it gets to his desk in the current form. It seems unlikely, but Republicans still could choose to amend the bill to be more acceptable to Wolf before Tuesday’s hearing, and help bring a swift end to the confusion about what the rules are going to be in the remaining weeks.

There’s still time to pass a bill that includes the priorities everyone agrees on, like allowing ballot pre-canvassing before Election Day and measures to make election worker staffing easier, without the poison-pill pieces Republicans included, like banning dropboxes and other in-person early voting options allowed under Act 77, or widening the black-out period for requesting an absentee ballot.

Just two weeks before voters begin casting mail ballots, the situation calls for a narrow bill focused only on election administration-side changes, which will not affect what voters have understood the rules to be. It is much too late for state legislators to be making any changes to what voters have been told about the rules of the election, including the early in-person voting options. The longer this drags out, the more of a communications disaster it’s going to be for everyone trying to convey accurate information about the election.

There was also movement this week in two key lawsuits impacting the election and some of the timing of this.

First, the state Supreme Court ruled that Green Party Presidential candidate
Howie Hawkins will appear on the ballot in Pennsylvania, denying a challenge from Democrats. Democrats could still appeal, but the longer this goes on for, the longer voters have to wait to start casting ballots, which is probably worse for Joe Biden than Hawkins's ability to draw votes from a disaffected left. Hawkins appears to be a particularly uncompelling candidate, having lost 24 elections prior to his Presidential bid.

And there was more good news for early voting security in another decision this week by Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan of the Western District of Pennsylvania denying the Trump campaign’s request for an injunction to separate ballots cast via dropboxes preemptively so that they could be challenged later. If the ballots had to be separated, it would be riskier to vote that way, knowing there was an off-chance they could be thrown out later, and fewer people would want to do it. For now at least, the in-person early voting options live to see another day.

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