Democratic Governor Considering Signing Major GOP Voter Suppression Legislation in Pennsylvania

Gov. Tom Wolf is weighing whether to sign SB 48, a GOP bill that would ban straight-ticket voting and give Donald Trump an edge in 2020.

NANTICOKE, PA - MAY 15:  Crossing guard Chester A. Prushinaki, 71, casts his vote at the Greater Nanticoke Area School District Football Stadium polling station during the 2018 Pennsylvania Primary Election on May 15, 2018 in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.  In the second major May primary day nationwide, four states go to the polls: Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
A crossing guard casts a vote at a polling station during the 2018 Pennsylvania primary election on May 15, 2018, in Nanticoke, Pa. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The state of Pennsylvania is on the cusp of approving a major piece of voter suppression legislation ahead of the 2020 election, despite a Democrat serving as governor. 

The bill, passed largely along party lines with nearly universal opposition from Democrats in the state legislature, is on the governor’s desk. If signed into law, it would ban what’s known as “straight-ticket” voting, which allows a voter to cast a ballot for all Democrats, or all Republicans, at once. Because precincts in Democratic areas of the state, particularly in Philadelphia, are heavily under-resourced relative to the size of the voting population, banning straight-ticket voting would mean much longer lines at the polls, as each voter needs more time behind the curtain. Studies have shown the longer lines depress Democrat turnout significantly.

The ban is a longtime goal of Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel. In late 2015, Republicans succeeded in banning straight-ticket voting in Michigan, spurring litigation that lasted for a couple of years. 

“I deposed Ronna Romney McDaniel,” Mary Ellen Gurewitz, a lawyer who represented Democrats in a suit to stop the ban, told the Detroit Metro Times. “She said that, when she was running for [chair] for the Michigan Republican Party in 2015, that it was her passion to eliminate straight-party voting, and that one of the reasons was that she thought it would help Republicans win.”

Donald Trump carried Michigan by 10,700 votes and Pennsylvania by 44,000 in 2016, meaning a swing of just a percentage point could be the difference between Trump’s reelection and his defeat.

The ban is included in SB 48, which passed both Pennsylvania’s state houses Thursday. The bill approves funding to update the state’s current voting machines but would remove the straight-ticket button. It would also delay Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to decertify existing machines — part of his strategy to get counties to purchase new machines in order to boost election security ahead of 2020. 

If he does nothing by late July, it will become law.

Wolf is currently reviewing the bill and has not commented publicly on it since its passage. He will decide whether or not to sign it at some point this week, spokesperson J.J. Abbott said in a statement to The Intercept. Wolf “has some concerns about components of the bills but also supports others,” Abbott said. As a second-term governor of a state critical to Democratic chances in 2020, Wolf will likely wind up on vice presidential short lists, giving his decision that much more weight. With the state legislature out of session, he has 30 days to decide whether or not to veto the bill. If he does nothing by late July, it will become law.

The governor originally supported the election reform bill because it approved a much-needed $90 million in funding for new voting machines, said state Rep. Kevin Boyle, the Democratic chair of the State Government Committee, where the bill originated. “Now the Governor has indicated he may veto it. We aren’t 100% sure though.” 

“Initially he was supportive of it, and then there was enough blowback from rank-and-file Democrats and progressive organizations that were opposed to it that he seemed like he might be not inclined to support it. But now, today, we heard that he’s really — he could go either way on it,” said Boyle on Monday, in part because the measure is tied to funding for the new voting machines. While improving voting technology is a “core function of government,” Boyle said, it shouldn’t be used as leverage to ram voter suppression legislation through. “We shouldn’t be sacrificing counting all votes, particularly from traditional Democratic groups like African Americans in inner city Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.” 

Wolf’s office did not respond to follow-up questions about the governor’s position on the bill.

Democrats in the state legislature conducted an internal analysis that they say shows eliminating the straight-ticket option would have an overall negative impact. “It’s very bad,” said Boyle. In both Michigan and Pennsylvania, groups that traditionally vote for Democrats are the ones that are most likely to vote straight ticket, Boyle said. “Not just African American communities in inner-city Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but also new voters, younger voters, tend to disproportionately hit the straight-party button. And in this decade, there’s actually been an increased use of the straight-party button, particularly in the Democratic-trending Philadelphia suburbs.” Eliminating that option, Boyle said, means that voters “might be less inclined to vote for every political contest on the ballot.” 

“There’s actually been an increased use of the straight-party button, particularly in the Democratic-trending Philadelphia suburbs.”

Only nine states currently allow straight-ticket voting. Texas recently eliminated the practice, but that change won’t go into effect until 2020. Proponents of eliminating the option say it would push voters to think more critically about who they’re voting for. Michigan passed a similar law in 2015, which was upheld last year after years of litigation; critics said it would result in longer wait times in more densely populated areas, disproportionately impacting African American voters. 

Eastern Michigan U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain agreed with that assessment, writing last August that the bill “intentionally discriminated against African-Americans.” Citing data that showed higher rates of straight-ticket voting in black areas, and the majority of those votes going to the Democratic party, Drain wrote that the law “unduly burdens the right to vote, reflects racial discriminatory intent harbored by the Michigan Legislature, and disparately impacts African-Americans’ opportunity to vote in concert with social and historical conditions of discrimination.” 

Still, a federal appellate court ordered the ban to take effect in the November election, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to keep the option on the ballot. 

With 12 Republican sponsors, the Pennsylvania bill passed the state Senate on a near-party-line vote. Every Republican voted for it, and all but three Democrats voted against it. 

The bill was originally designed to address certification and funding of voting machines but was amended in recent weeks to eliminate the option for straight-ticket voting. “Data shows there is a strong and very disproportionate usage of this form of voting in the African American community,” Boyle said. “It reminds me of GOP efforts 8 years ago to mandate ID to vote which would have also very disproportionately hurt communities of color.”

Update: July 8, 2019
Gov. Tom Wolf announced on July 5 that he would veto the legislation, citing concerns about the removal of the straight-ticket option and saying the bill weakened state power to respond to election security needs. “This policy choice removes a convenient voting option which is used by voters of any party affiliation,” Wolf said in a statement.  “To implement such a change, particularly as new machines are being used for the first time, could lead to voter confusion and longer lines at the polls.  These factors may lead to decreased voter participation, which, again, is in conflict with an inclusive approach to our system of elections.  I sought amendatory language at various points to include voter-friendly reforms in this legislation, but those changes were not accepted.

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