Pennsylvania’s Republican-run House of Representatives Thursday slated major election-integrity legislation for a vote in mid-December.
The Voting Rights Protection Act, sponsored by State Rep. Seth Grove (R-Dover), would strengthen voter-identification requirements, mandate regular election audits, review and correct errors on voter-registration lists and ensure signature verification for all mail-in ballots. The bill was amended this week to also affirm a strict time frame wherein mail-in ballots must be counted.
State Rep. Tracy Pennycuick’s (R-Harleysville) amendment to Grove’s bill would mandate that county election boards open and count all mail-in ballots they receive before Election Day no later than 9 p.m. on election night. Counties would need to open and count any ballots received by mail on Election Day by 2 a.m. the next morning.
Pennycuick’s amendment would also require election bureaus to calculate all results from every precinct as well as all mail-in ballots by 6 a.m. the morning after Election Day. Provisional ballots, which a voter can cast if an election office needs more time to ascertain his or her eligibility to vote, as well as military and overseas absentee ballots, would be exempted from this rule.
“Voters should not have to wait a day or two for trustworthy election results,” Grove said in a statement. “There have been cases in which a candidate went to bed on election night thinking he or she won, only to find out otherwise the next morning because all the votes hadn’t been counted the previous night. This amendment provides a more than reasonable timeframe to ensure accurate results are delivered on time.”
The vote on Pennycuick’s amendment came down almost exactly along party lines, with State Rep. Mike Puskaric (R-Elizabeth) the lone GOP representative joining all Democrats in opposition.
In debate on the House floor and in the press, Democrats portrayed the amendment as an attempt to rush vote counting or even to shut it down prematurely.
“Republicans don’t want every vote counted,” said the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus in a tweet. “They want to stop counting votes before all the vote-by-mail ballots are counted. If you vote by mail, they want to throw your ballot in the trash.” Another tweet said Republicans believe in “count[ing] every vote by 9 p.m. or they get thrown out.”
There is, however, no provision in Pennycuick’s amendment to throw out ballots merely because an election office fails to count them on time. In cases where a county fails to conduct timely canvassing, the amendment would bar the state from reimbursing that county for any expenses related to that election.
Pennsylvania’s state representatives will resume the session on December 13. The bill is expected to be considered by the full House that week.
Grove introduced the original version of the Voting Rights Protection Act in June. The bill swiftly passed both legislative chambers but Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed it, calling it “voter suppression.” Shortly thereafter, the governor indicated he might support strengthened voter-ID rules, prompting Grove to reintroduce the measure. Wolf has, however, spoken negatively of the new Grove bill.
Grove and other supporters of stronger election security have cited the current voter-fraud charges against former Philadelphia City Council staffer Marie Beren as evidence that change is needed. The allegations against Beren made by Jennifer Arbittier Williams, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, include forging votes by people the defendant supposedly knew ahead of time would not show up to the polls.
Further bolstering the case for reform is a report, published May 10, resulting from a thorough review of Pennsylvania’s election laws that was spearheaded by Grove who chairs the House State Government Committee. The report underscored a number of concerns on the part of county officials that, for instance, election administration needs to be more uniform across counties, that voter-registration lists need to be more accurate and that auditing processes need to be more rigorous.
Compounding worries about the precision of vote counts in Pennsylvania are recent allegations that election officials in Democrat-run Delaware County illegally destroyed voting-machine tapes and other voting records. A lawsuit filed this week in that county’s Court of Common Pleas charges that Delaware County, the Delaware County Board of Elections and the Delaware County Bureau of Elections as well as election officials Marilyn Heider and James Ziegelhoffer violated numerous state and federal election laws.
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