This week’s decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholding Act 77, which legalized no-excuse absentee voting in the Keystone State, is spurring Republican lawmakers to renew their push for election reform. 

A Republican-led legislature passed and Democrat Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 77 three years ago. Democrat State Senator Lisa Boscola (D-Bethlehem) initially drafted the bill to eliminate straight-party voting, a policy Republican legislators largely agreed with her. More Democrats supported the measure once a section was added, allowing voters to cast mail-in ballots without providing a reason they could not come to the polls (i.e., illness, injury or travel). 

In January, in response to a lawsuit filed by Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko (R) and several GOP state representatives, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Commonwealth Court struck down the new law as unconstitutional. This week, the five-Democrat majority on the seven-member Supreme Court overturned that ruling; Republican Justices Sallie Mundy and Kevin Brobson dissented. 

Conservative judges on both courts, in criticizing Act 77, noted that the text of the Constitution of Pennsylvania specifies that voters generally are required to vote at the polling place in their precinct, absent an excuse why they cannot. In the past, when lawmakers addressed who could or could not vote absentee, they did so via constitutional amendment. 

Justice Christine Donohue (D), in writing the Supreme Court’s opinion, nonetheless reasoned that no-excuse absentee voting could take place without constitutional change because “our General Assembly is endowed with great legislative power, subject only to express restrictions in the Constitution.” 

State Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Gettysburg), a member of his chamber’s State Government Committee who is also running against Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro for governor, slammed the court’s ruling and said the General Assembly should work to repeal no-excuse mail-in voting. 

“I’ve made it clear unconstitutional meddling from Governor Tom Wolf’s administration poisoned Act 77 and made it unethical for Pennsylvania to continue to allow no-excuse mail-in voting,” the senator said. “As expected, the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court condoned the administration’s deplorable behavior, because apparently partisan loyalty is more important to them than upholding the Constitution. That’s why the General Assembly must capitalize on the momentum of our initial election integrity reforms and reinsert safeguards back into the process so that Pennsylvanians can trust their votes will truly count.”

Like almost all Republicans in the legislature, Mastriano originally voted for Act 77. He has since said the commonwealth’s executive branch, led by Wolf and then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, implemented the law poorly by issuing extralegal guidance to counties allowing them to use drop boxes for ballot collection and permitting voters to “cure” ballots on which they made errors. 

In his response, House of Representatives Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Quarryville) did not attack the new law’s absentee voting expansion. Still, he urged the enactment of election reforms to make that process, as well as in-person voting, more secure. Last year, Republican lawmakers passed a House bill written toward that end which included voter identification requirements and other election integrity measures. Wolf vetoed that bill and a new version of it has since been reintroduced but the governor has indicated he still opposes it.

Republicans have since passed a bill to amend the state constitution to require voter identification and to reform post-election audits. That legislation needs to pass in the next General Assembly session before it can be submitted to voters as a ballot question for their approval or disapproval. The governor would play no role in that process.

“It is clear that in order for all Pennsylvanians to have full faith in our election processes and outcomes, further changes to our election law must be made to ensure all appropriate safeguards and security measures are in place and enforced,” Cutler said.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Mail in Ballot” by Cindy Shebley. CC BY 2.0.