Pennsylvania GOP gets 2nd chance at voter ID bill

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks about voting rights in Delaware County in June. He said at the time that new voter ID rules were a nonstarter for him, but now he says he’s open to some changes. Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania Republicans plan to reintroduce their election overhaul legislation — which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed last month — now that Wolf has changed his public position to say he’s open to new voter ID requirements.

Wolf had said that changes to the state’s voter ID rules were a nonstarter for him, declaring it off-limits even before Republicans unveiled the bill. His office didn’t negotiate the legislation at all before Wolf vetoed it.

But in a shift, Wolf told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week he is open to new voter ID rules.

State Rep. Seth Grove, a York Republican and the chair of the House State Government Committee, cited Tuesday’s Inquirer story in announcing his plan to reintroduce his bill.

“While this revelation would have been more welcomed a month ago as the General Assembly was moving HB 1300 of 2021 through the legislative process, it is a productive development,” Grove wrote in a memo seeking support from his colleagues released Wednesday morning.

It’s unclear whether Wolf will be open to negotiating the reintroduced bill. He told The Inquirer that he had prejudged the original voter ID proposal as suppressive before seeing it — and that he believes he was right — and that he didn’t negotiate because he didn’t believe Republicans were acting in good faith. His office didn’t immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.

The original bill would have changed nearly every aspect of elections, including registration, voting by mail, in-person voting, vote counting, and post-election audits. Some provisions would likely have expanded access to the ballot, such as the establishment of in-person early voting, while others would likely have restricted access, especially in the state’s largest counties. For example, standards on the use of mail-ballot drop boxes would have limited Philadelphia to a lower number per resident than other counties.

Grove said in his memo that the bill would be updated to include changes sought by Democratic state Reps. Jared Solomon of Philadelphia and Mark Longetti of Mercer. The updated bill would also include state funding of $3.1 million to create and operate a Bureau of Election Audits within the office of the state Auditor General.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, has championed that bureau, and he and other Republicans said Wolf had agreed to the funding in the state budget deal last month, though Democrats said there was no such agreement and Wolf vetoed that money.

The most politically controversial provision of the original election overhaul bill was its requirement that all voters show ID to cast a ballot. Current law requires voters to show ID only when voting at a polling place for the first time. The voter ID rule in the bill was relatively weaker than mandates in other states, as it required election officials to provide voters with free ID and accept signed affidavits from voters who go to vote without identification.

With Wolf’s veto, Republicans instead pivoted to a backup plan: a constitutional amendment.

That amendment would require every voter to provide a government-issued identification in every election. Constitutional amendments, if passed twice by the legislature in consecutive sessions, go directly to voters for approval without the governor’s involvement.

Voter ID rules have been the subject of heated political and legal fights across the country for more than a decade. A 2012 Pennsylvania voter ID law — one of the strictest in the nation — was blocked by courts from ever taking effect. Since then, Republicans have continued to call for new ID requirements under the name of strengthening election integrity and preventing fraud, though voter fraud, especially voter impersonation, is vanishingly rare.

Voter ID requirements can also generate confusion among voters and raise additional barriers to already marginalized groups, including poor and low-income voters, Black and Hispanic voters, voters with disabilities, and particularly young and old voters.

But Democrats have become increasingly open to voter ID rules, including as they seek to pass the For The People Act in Congress.

Wolf cited that discussion in the Inquirer interview and said his shift generally lines up with that evolving Democratic position: Without expressing desire to impose new rules, he said he was open to considering them.

“I’m sure out there is a reasonable voter ID solution to say ... you need to show that you should be voting here,” Wolf said in the interview. “And I’m fine with that. The formula in (the Republican bill), in my mind, was not it.”

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