By David Loomis
INDIANA – Maybe you missed the news last month: “Pennsylvania leads the nation in proposed voter suppression legislation in 2021, with 14 restrictive policy proposals.” (By February, the commonwealth slipped to second place behind Arizona’s 19 proposals.)
Some distinction. Either way, it marks a head-snapping reversal for the commonwealth’s Republican-controlled legislature. In October 2019 a majority of GOP lawmakers approved a bipartisan bill signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf that made the most significant improvements to the state’s voting laws in 80 years. Provisions included expansion of voting by mail to all voters.
A year later, on Nov. 3, Pennsylvania voters broke a 60-year-old record for voting participation. In the process, they rejected Donald Trump, the candidate they supported in 2016.
Since then, Republican legislators in Harrisburg, in Washington and in Indiana County have exhibited a sudden change of heart over the 2019 improvements, despite their own down-ballot election successes. The switch also displays a disturbing loyalty to the loser-in-chief.
In Harrisburg, state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, signed a Dec. 4 letter asking the commonwealth’s congressional delegation to toss Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes for Biden. The seditious request failed. State Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, signed a separate Dec. 4 letter addressed to the state’s attorney general asking him to appoint an independent prosecutor to review “election irregularities.” The AG promptly responded that neither state law nor the state constitution allows it.
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-15th Congressional District (including Indiana County), heeded the Dec. 4 letter and formally objected to counting Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, even after a violent insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He called for “an investigation and audit” to prevent unspecified “negligence.” And he voted against impeaching Trump for inciting the mob. (Pennsylvania’s U.S. senators Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, both voted to convict Trump.)
In Indiana County, when questions arose over mail-in ballots on Nov. 10, the Republican majority on the local Board of Elections – who also serve as members of the county Board of Commissioners – voted along party lines to effectively disenfranchise around 60 county voters. The ballots probably were insufficient to have made a difference in the tally. But the Republican reaction fits a wider pattern.
IT ALSO SUGGESTS a need for modest clarification of the 2019 election-reform law. As it happens, the minority member of the county election board/board of commissioners serves as chair of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s Elections Reform Committee. On Jan. 19, Sherene Hess announced the association’s top legislative priorities for 2021 – to allow counties more time to pre-canvass mail-in ballots and to move the deadline for mail-in ballot applications to 15 days prior to an election, to coincide with the voter registration deadline.
“These two priorities alone could resolve a significant portion of the challenges counties experienced in 2020,” Hess said in a Jan. 19 statement issued by the association.
Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg, however, are considering wholesale suppression, such as limiting who can vote by mail, making it harder to obtain ballots, creating barriers to completing or casting ballots, imposing burdensome signature-matching requirements, requiring voter ID and repealing the 2019 law.
Asked for his position on the measures, Rep. Struzzi said he would wait and see. Sen. Pittman did not respond to a Feb. 17 email.
BUT LAWMAKERS MIGHT consider additional voter data emerging after the 2020 election and 2021 insurrection: Republican voters are leaving the party at higher-than-usual rates — more than 12,000 in Pennsylvania since Jan. 6 — according to Pennsylvania voter registration data. Analysts said the trend is a widespread reaction to the violent insurrection and its fallout.
Party defections may be showing up in Indiana County, a Republican stronghold that got even stronger in the 2020 election. Since then, data supplied by the Pennsylvania Department of State and the county’s Voter Registration Office show Democrats and Republicans losing voters by fractional percentages. The only party to gain registered voters here is “other.”
In 2021, partisans who propose to gut the state’s 2019 election reforms should heed the words of federal Judge Matthew W. Brann, a former Pennsylvania Republican Party official and a member of the conservative Federalist Society. Three weeks after the election, the judge dismissed team Trump’s baseless lawsuit against Pennsylvania for its “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that were “unsupported by evidence.”
“In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state,” Judge Brann wrote in his Nov. 21 ruling. “Our people, laws and institutions demand more.”
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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