Pennsylvania acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid did not testify in person at Tuesday’s Senate State Government Committee hearing on bipartisan election reforms, accentuating a rift between committee Republicans and Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) administration.
The legislation the committee is considering is bipartisan and doesn’t include voter-ID provisions or similarly controversial items. Committee Chairman David Argall (R-Pottsville) however lamented that Wolf has suggested he may veto the bill.
Sponsored by Argall and Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), the election-reform measure would allow counties to begin pre-canvassing mail-in ballots three days before Election Day. It would also move up the mail-in ballot application deadline by one week (to two weeks before Election Day) so that county election offices could have more time to get all ballots to their requesters. The legislation’s provisions largely stem from recommendations issued by the Senate Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform earlier this year.
One section of the Argall-Street bill that has received some pushback, particularly from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), would require video live-streaming of mail-in ballot counting so members of the public could observe the process. CCAP has asserted that some counties don’t have the technological capabilities to live-stream those counts and that the video captures of vote-counting could somehow spur the spread of misinformation about whether the activity was properly performed. Disagreements over live-streaming nonetheless have not yet led to discernible opposition to the bill within the legislature.
Degraffenreid’s absence on Tuesday did nothing to quell the Republicans’ displeasure regarding Wolf or Degraffenreid, the latter of whom is tasked with overseeing Pennsylvania’s elections.
“Our goal, of course, is to pass something that will receive the governor’s signature,” Argall said. “He’s already threatened to veto this bill despite the fact that it hasn’t even left this committee. And so we have a very difficult road ahead of us.”
The senator noted this is not the first time Pennsylvania’s secretary of state has declined to appear before his committee to discuss election integrity. Two weeks ago, the panel convened to take testimony from election-reform advocates. Argall said Degraffenreid indicated she would be available on that day and on Tuesday but later withdrew her commitments to appear.
“I cannot understand the unwillingness of the secretary of the commonwealth to appear today at a time and date agreed to weeks ago,” he said. “If the acting secretary and the governor think that much-needed election reforms will occur through stonewalling and press releases, they are 100-percent wrong.”
The secretary has also declined to appear before the state Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, which is undertaking an investigation into the 2020 Pennsylvania general election and the 2021 Pennsylvania primary. The Pennsylvania Department of State has underwent much scrutiny from Republicans for issuing changing election guidance concerning election procedures in 2020. Degraffenreid has cited a court battle with some members of the legislature over election-related matters as her reason why she did not testify before the Intergovernmental Operations Committee.
While Street admitted he was “disappointed” that no one from the Pennsylvania Department of State came to testify, he said he was “encouraged” by the agency’s willingness to discuss his bill in writing. He said, for instance, that he felt the department provided helpful feedback regarding Pennsylvania’s permanent mail-in ballot list, which voters can sign onto to receive a mail-in ballot for every election going forward. While the Argall-Street bill would eliminate that list, the Wolf administration wants to preserve it.
Republican members of the committee however insisted that the discussion between the legislature and the executive branch about what to cut out of the election-reform bill and what to leave in it must be in full public view.
“Once again a Senate committee finds itself speaking to an empty chair because the Wolf administration refuses to engage in some meaningful dialogue, dialogue that a majority of our constituents care deeply about,” Sen. Pat Stefano (R-Bullskin Township) told his colleagues. “Worse, the Department of State who refused to be here today is the same department that changed guidance and took numerous actions that undermined the public confidence in Pennsylvania’s 2020 election.”
Sen. Maria Collett (D-Montgomery) dismissed Republican protestations over Degraffenreid’s decision not to testify.
“The administration doesn’t craft the law,” she said. “They simply execute it.”
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