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Pennsylvania considers expansion to voter ID law

Lawmakers propose amendments to a bill that would move the state’s 2024 primary, including provisions for ballot curing and pre-processing mail ballots.

The dome of the Pennsylvania capitol building
State lawmakers are proposing amendments on issues such as voter ID and ballot curing to a bill that would move the state’s 2024 primary. (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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Update, Oct. 4: The state House adopted two amendments that would overhaul election laws on Wednesday, including expanded voter ID requirements, which passed with bipartisan support. Democrats passed another amendment along a party line vote, which includes three days of pre-canvassing mail ballots, a requirement that counties notify voters of disqualifying mail ballot errors, and other provisions.

The complete bill, which would also move Pennsylvania’s 2024 primary earlier, to March 19, could be passed out of the House as soon as Thursday. The amendments mean it would then need to go back to the Senate for another vote, followed by Gov. Josh Shapiro’s signature, before it becomes law.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are once again considering expanding the state’s voter ID requirements, this time as part of a larger proposal to change the date of the 2024 presidential primary.

The Democratic-controlled state House is expected to consider a Republican-authored amendment this week that would require voters to show proof of identification every time they cast a ballot in person. Currently, state law requires voters to show proof of identification the first time they vote at a polling place.

It’s unclear if there’s enough support in the 203-member chamber — where Democrats hold a one-vote advantage — to advance such a proposal. Neither Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro nor the GOP-controlled state Senate have publicly weighed in on the measure.

But its introduction drew pushback from election access advocates, who raised concerns that expanding photo ID requirements would keep people who have voted without issue for years away from the polls. 

The proposal is one of several that state House lawmakers plan to offer as soon as this Wednesday as amendments to an existing bill that proposes to move Pennsylvania’s 2024 presidential primary from April 24 to March 19.

Democrats want to make several changes to the rules regarding mail ballots, including adding a requirement that directs counties to notify voters if they incorrectly fill out a mail ballot and allow them to fix it. 

County governments in charge of running elections were already concerned that changing the 2024 primary date would cause serious logistical problems, and the new amendments only added to their worries. 

“If the legislature wants to change the primary date, we suggest they focus on getting that bill to the Governor’s desk, and not further delay action by adding unrelated amendments,” said John Buffone, spokesperson for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “We have also asked that counties be included when election legislation is drafted to make sure the language can be successfully implemented, and we are significantly concerned about making other changes without appropriate time to fully review.”

Will Democrats back expanding voter ID?

A wide range of documents would meet the voter ID requirement under the new proposal, including any PennDOT ID for up to 12 months past its expiration date, and a student or work ID, according to draft language viewed by Spotlight PA and Votebeat. If the voter lacks a photo ID, up to 13 types of documents — including a utility bill, paystub, or lease — could be used as a substitute. 

The proposal would also require PennDOT to provide IDs that meet the new provision’s requirements free of charge to voters if they request one. Voters could also ask another voter to vouch for them through a written affirmation if they lack one of the required IDs or documents.

State Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R., Dauphin) told Spotlight PA his measure is “very bipartisan.” A memo asking colleagues to support such an idea was co-signed by a Democratic state House member.

“In Pennsylvania, we are required to present identification the first time we vote as well as when we register to vote by mail,” the lawmakers wrote in the memo. “Requiring identification at the polls prevents fraud and will begin to rebuild confidence in our electoral system.”

The new voter ID requirements would not go into effect until 2025, Mehaffie said.

Kadida Kenner of the New Pennsylvania Project, a voting rights group, said her organization is watching the voter ID amendment with caution.

“New Pennsylvania Project is always going to be concerned about anything that puts an additional barrier in front of Pennsylvania voters,” she said. “What we are concerned about as an organization is this is the beginning of how voting rights get chipped away.”

While she recognized that many Pennsylvanians support expanding voter ID — polls show broad support— she does not think popularity equates to good policy, and that if more voters understood the additional barrier this creates, they would not be as supportive.

State House Democrats who spoke to Spotlight PA and Votebeat ran the gamut as to whether they would support this measure. 

State Rep. Jared Solomon (D., Philadelphia), one of the lawmakers leading the charge to move the primary date, said he had yet to see the voter ID amendment language. 

“I’m not sure what amendments are going to go on, but I think it is essential that we move this [primary],” Solomon said. 

Proponents of changing the date of the 2024 primary argue that moving it earlier will increase Pennsylvania’s influence over the presidential election. Further, next year’s primary is scheduled to take place during Passover, a time when some Jews avoid writing, driving, and using electricity. 

Other Democratic lawmakers are suspicious of any potential changes to voter ID requirements and said they would lean toward voting against such a proposal. First-year lawmaker Tarik Khan (D., Philadelphia) said he would have to see the language of the bill but is generally against any additional requirements. 

“Generally, I’m very suspicious around voter ID because often it’s been used to disenfranchise people,” he said. 

An omnibus in the making?

The underlying bill to change the primary date almost didn’t advance Tuesday, first failing in committee during an early morning meeting. House State Government Committee Chair Scott Conklin (D., Centre) reconvened the committee after a private meeting with House Democratic leadership. In the second meeting, the bill passed.

“Politics is like making sausage sometimes,” Conklin said. “And at the time that we voted this morning, there are other things in progress within government itself. So for that reason, we come back to reconsider [the bill] to also put it on the floor for a vote.”

As of Tuesday evening, state House lawmakers had proposed 16 amendments to the primary bill.

One of the amendments, from state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia), represents a laundry list of election reforms, many of which tackle gray areas around mail ballots that have been debated in the courts.

Included is the most sought-after change for counties: three days of pre-canvassing. County officials have advocated for more time to process mail ballots before Election Day since Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail voting law greatly expanded their responsibilities a few years ago.

The amendment also provides a more specific definition for pre-canvassing, which it defines as unfolding and straightening out mail ballots, and putting them through tabulators. Those tabulators, which scan ballots and record each vote, could not be used to total those votes ahead of polls closing on Election Day. 

Kenyatta’s proposal would also remove existing requirements for voters to date outer mail ballot envelopes and to return such ballots in an inner secrecy envelope. 

The measure would require counties to notify voters of disqualifying mail ballot errors. The proposed language goes as far as requiring county election offices to send an employee to the home of a voter who cast a flawed ballot if they do not respond to a call, text, or email.

Additionally, the state would be required to conduct risk-limiting audits after each election, and counties would need to maintain chain of custody logs for ballots.

In a text message, Kenyatta said he was proposing “commonsense election reforms that strengthen our election system” and that he hoped it would receive bipartisan support.

“There’s a lot to like here,” said Kyle Miller, a policy advocate with the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy and a former aide to a Democratic member of the state Senate. 

Miller pointed specifically to removing the dating and inner secrecy envelope requirements for mail ballots, as well as requiring counties to immediately examine mail ballots when they are received and notify voters of errors. 

“Overall that’s the best thing about this amendment,” he said. “It provides uniformity to elections in all 67 counties rather than this patchwork of understanding by county solicitors.”

The amendment would also increase the cost to file a recount petition from $50 to $850, and requires that the petitions allege specific fraud. These petitions became an issue during last year’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections.

“That’s a major provision there that will put a high burden of proof and protect elections from actors who are trying to subvert the election process,” Miller said.

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

Stephen Caruso is the capitol reporter for Spotlight PA. Kate Huangpu is a government reporter for Spotlight PA.

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