Newsletter: Vote-By-Mail Election Fixes | Gerrymandering Reigns | State and Local Aid: Now More Than Ever

(Baskets of mail ballots | Photo: Philadelphia City Commissioners)

Pennsylvania is one of a few states whose slow mail-in vote counts in the primary are creating a lot of jitters about the possibility of a terrifying Constitutional crisis in November. 

As Jonathan Lai explains in a piece about The Scenario this week, what many political observers fear is a situation where President Donald Trump is ahead in Pennsylvania's in-person election results on election night in November as less populous and more conservative areas of Pennsylvania report their results first. But then a protracted count of mail-in ballots from Philadelphia over several weeks starts to reverse Trump’s lead, and the Trump campaign spends the in-between period trying to delegitimize the process and sues to stop the counts prematurely while Trump is ahead, and the conservative Supreme Court majority plays along with it.

Donald Trump’s public fear-mongering about vote-by-mail all spring has a lot of people spooked that he’s rhetorically setting the stage to contest the legitimacy of the election. The Trump campaign took things another step further this week by suing Pennsylvania in a pre-emptive bid to knock out a few election practices that they seem to think advantage Democratic voters in big cities, like dropboxes for mail-ballots in neighborhoods, and counting ballots that weren’t placed in the secrecy envelopes. The lawsuit, which was also joined by the RNC and four GOP members of Congress, also sought to let people who aren’t from Philadelphia County work as poll watchers, raising the specter of voter intimidation of Philly voters by poll watchers bused in from other parts of the state.

Currently Joe Biden appears to be polling around 10 points ahead of Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, so these fears could all be moot if the in-person vote isn’t particularly close. But everybody has an interest, regardless of the potential for world-historic calamity this November, in speeding up the mail counts every year as a general proposition and now is as good a time as any to get it done.

Fixing the known problems would require state legislative action, and there’s a positive sign this is moving in Harrisburg. Last week, the House State Government Committee members passed a first draft of a bill to get this conversation started, and they plan to spend this summer working on amendments. Happily, one of the main changes that could speed things up—pre-canvassing of ballots before election day—seems to be a point of agreement between legislative Republicans and Governor Tom Wolf. The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reviews some of the changes that could be coming in this bill.

Last week, the committee, which handles all voting matters, passed an omnibus bill that included numerous tweaks to state election law. The changes include a tracking number on each ballot and giving voters the OK to drop off a sealed mail-in ballot at their polling place.Schaefer and Everett both suggested moving the application deadline for mail-in ballots back from a week to 15 days before the election [...]

Both also want more time for counties to pre-canvass mail-in ballots. Election officials can only begin to open envelopes under state law at 7 a.m. on Election Day.

In an email, Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf, said that the governor agreed that counties should have more time, but did not favor moving back the application deadline.

Opening up another front in this fight, the NAACP also filed suit against Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, seeking a number of changes pushing in the direction of greater ease of voting, including “stricter limitations on how many polling places a county can close, better notice of changes to locations, in-person early voting, automatic sending of mail ballot applications to all voters, and universal use of hand-marked paper ballots at polling places,” as reported by the Inquirer.

Stay tuned to this newsletter for more updates as the State Government Committee attempts to fix the slow counting issues, while also addressing the security and voting access concerns raised in these lawsuits.

There Won’t Be an Independent Redistricting Commission This Time Around

After the 2020 Census numbers are released in the new year, the PA legislature will start the process of redrawing state and federal political districts, and at least this time around, there won’t be an independent redistricting commission leading that process.

This week, advocates from Fair Districts PA, which had been advocating for redistricting reforms taking map-drawing power away from elected officials, announced that the legislature has now run out of time to put in place one of two bills that Fair Districts was supporting, which would have amended the state Constitution to allow an independent commission to also draw state House and Senate maps in addition to federal ones. Currently it is the Constitutional responsibility of the state legislators themselves to draw the state legislative district maps.

The reason the Constitutional amendment won’t happen in time is that the process for changing the state Constitution requires a bill to pass in two consecutive sessions, and then be approved by voters statewide through a ballot referendum. As Ford Turner at the Morning Call explains, the last day for the constitutional amendment bill to pass the legislature in time would have been August 5th, but the next session days scheduled for the House aren’t until mid-September.

The other of the two bills creating an 11-member Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw federal district maps after each Census would not require a Constitutional amendment, so could potentially keep moving forward, and legislative supporters told the Morning Call they plan to press on.

With state legislators now officially still in the driver’s seat of redrawing state districts, the stakes of which party controls the state legislature in the next term just went up. Democrats have an important built-in advantage next time around, unlike 2010, because Wolf is Governor and the Democratic majority on the Supreme Court provides a backstop for just how Republican-favored the map can get without the Court rejecting it. If Democrats were able to take control of one or both legislative chambers, they would have a much stronger hand in drawing the maps to their own advantage—an ongoing point of contention between Fair Districts and other non-partisan redistricting advocates, and Democratic lawmakers who smell an opportunity to lock in a bright blue state legislative map for the next decade.

State and Local Aid: Now More Than Ever

The Washington Post reports on a new survey from the National League of Cities finding that more than 700 U.S. cities plan to delay and cancel planned capital investments in repairing roads, water systems, and other infrastructure projects as battered local tax revenues force them to pull back spending. State and local governments have seen their revenues drop by a collective $140 billion so far, according to the Cleveland Fed, leading to a vicious cycle of service cuts and lay-offs, and further declining tax revenues.

It’s a genuinely insane situation, particularly given the federal government’s bargain-basement borrowing costs, and the Federal Reserve’s originally stated intention of heading off a big round of economically-counterproductive state and local budget cuts piled on top of the dizzying job losses in the private sector, and the purported interest from President Trump and some members of Congress about a possible “infrastructure stimulus.”

Given the circumstances described in the National League of Cities report, the easiest and most effective infrastructure stimulus would simply be to send more money to state and local governments so they can proceed with the capital spending they were already planning on doing.

In the same vein of “first do not harm” policies, Congress should also take under strong consideration that if they allow unemployment insurance and the $600 weekly increase to lapse as scheduled at the end of July, we’re going to see an even more severe pull-back on consumer spending, leading to more job losses and bigger hits to state and local tax revenue. Congress’s failure to stabilize household incomes and state and local spending is making things much worse than they have to be, and the U.S. is virtually alone among rich countries in choosing mass unemployment to be a side-effect of our pandemic response.

Senate Republicans, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, are also slow-walking action on another round of federal fiscal stimulus in general, and are hostile to state and local aid in particular. So much so that the Federal Reserve’s new municipal lending facility was forced to make some fatal political compromises in its program design that resulted in just one state government—Illinois—making use of these loans so far.  As Roll Call’s Jim Saksa (formerly of WHYY) explains, one problem is that the Fed is fatally over-emphasizing recoupment of the loans as a priority, as opposed to getting sufficient money into sub-national governments’ hands as fast as possible, and stopping the harmful budget cuts that are now unfolding everywhere in cities and states across America.

This underscores once again the need to make future rounds of stimulus automatic and recurring, and tied to objective economic conditions on the ground like the unemployment rate. Congress moves too slowly on these huge one-off packages, and as time goes on, the politics relentlessly push in favor of doing too little to fix the problems. But especially in this case, the risks of doing too little far exceed those of doing too much, and the policies should be tied to specific results in the economy, not left up to Congress's short attention span or squeamishness about big numbers. 

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