GOP 2022 gubernatorial hopefuls spar over Pa. vote by-mail law

The issue has emerged as a litmus test that’s drawn some clear dividing lines

By: - August 5, 2021 11:39 am

Pennsylvania is redesigning its mail-in ballots for 2024. (Capital-Star photo)

In the lead up to the 2022 governor’s race, some Pennsylvania Republican hopefuls are reaching for a new way to question conservative credentials — did their rival vote to approve no-excuse mail-in ballots?

The attacks range from legal critiques of the law to broadsides accusing Republicans of selling out former President Donald Trump. And they’ve divided the still-developing field between those who served in the General Assembly back in 2019 and those who did not.

With months to go until the 2022 primary, it’s unclear how well the tactic will work. 

But the Republican base may be primed for it. Almost 3 in 5 Republicans support the elimination of no-excuse mail-in ballots, according to a June Franklin and Marshall College poll which included the opinions of 177 registered Republican voters statewide. 

“I don’t think [Republican voters], nor I, understand why that law was voted for,” Jason Richey, a Pittsburgh attorney with K&L Gates running for the GOP nod, told the Capital-Star. 

He claims the law is unconstitutional — a claim the state’s majority-GOP state House opposed, and the liberal state Supreme Court court rejected, in 2020 — and wants it repealed.

Before lawmakers approved Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot law, or Act 77, registered voters  needed to show that their “duties, occupation or business require them to be elsewhere” to vote absentee, according to the state constitution. Other valid excuses were a health or religious reason why they could not vote in-person.

The state also had among the tightest ballot return deadlines in the country, leading to high ballot rejection rates.

These laws sparked bipartisan concern. So in a deal with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the GOP-controlled General Assembly agreed in the fall of 2019 to create no-excuse absentee ballots with much broader deadlines in exchange for the elimination of straight-ticket voting on ballots. 

At the time, national Republicans viewed eliminating straight ticket voting — which occurs when a voter casts their ballot for the entire party slate with a single vote — as a priority

Democrats largely opposed the law, pointing to studies that showed a link to higher voting wait times, particularly in minority neighborhoods, when straight-ticket voting had been repealed.

Just two Republican House members voted against the bill. And despite the opposition from within his party, Wolf signed the bill into law surrounded by Republican legislators and voting rights advocates.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic created a massive new demand to vote by mail. In the 2018 midterm election, just 200,000 people voted with absentee ballots. In the 2020 presidential election, 2.6 million people voted by mail under Act 77.

This increase in demand revealed flaws and vague passages that needed clarification, from the legality of drop boxes to signature verification. Negotiations to address these issues with legislation failed, and Wolf went to the state Supreme Court instead.

The high court approved most of Wolf’s asks, including ballot drop-off boxes, as well as three extra days for ballots to arrive due to postal delays.

President Joe Biden would go on to beat Trump by 80,000 votes in the commonwealth. Many of those votes were cast by mail and then tallied after Election Day due to restrictions on when county election officials could process ballots.

Combine the court rulings and the long count with Trump’s baseless undermining of mail-in voting and the 2020 results, and now many Republicans oppose Act 77 — which GOP gubernatorial hopefuls have been happy to pick up on.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, of Hazleton, a close Trump ally, has called for the repeal of law on social media in recent months as the General Assembly debated changes to state voting law. 

“Act 77 allowed for this chaos to occur and now millions of Pennsylvanians who voted for President Trump, myself included, have serious concerns about how our elections were administered in 2020,” Barletta added in a statement.

Joe Gale, a Montgomery County commissioner, and self-styled Trumpian outsider, took an even more combative tone on the law’s approval by a Republican Legislature.

In an radio ad currently airing across the commonwealth, Gale claims the GOP Legislature “colluded” with Wolf to pass the law which “brought down Trump’s presidency.”

The ad also mentions state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, by name. Mastriano is currently pushing for a legislative investigation of the 2020 election results, and is widely seen as a GOP gubernatorial hopeful in 2022. Early polls have also found him among the top candidates, along with Barletta.

In his ads, Gale has attempted to link Mastriano to the election law he voted for, calling him “Mail-In Mastriano.”

“Any elected official who put their hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the constitution and then voted for Act 77 should be disqualified from holding office,” Gale added in an email to the Capital-Star. “These legislators should resign in shame or at the very least forfeit any efforts at re-election or dreams of higher office.” 

In speeches and radio appearances, Mastriano has begun to respond to the accusation that he helped lay the seeds for Trump’s defeat by voting for Act 77.

“I think these people are just ridiculously misinformed or easily fooled by some punk out there pushing propaganda and some of these people that are spreading this kind of crap,” Mastriano said in a July 15 radio appearance.

He’s argued that he backed a different law then what was implemented in 2020 following the state Supreme Court’s rulings.

“There’s a lot of talk about the election reform. That’s not what I voted on or any Republican in the Senate. We didn’t vote on what came out on the 17th of September or[former Secretary of State Kathy] Boockvar changes in October or November, so that’s not it,” Mastriano said at a June Capitol rally. “So stop shooting at other Republicans and let’s get together.”

He’s also proposed legislation in the General Assembly to hold a referendum on mail-in ballots, potentially repealing them with a constitutional amendment.

But not every GOP candidate in the race is opposed to the law. Mastriano’s Senate colleague Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, told the Capital-Star that he’s faced questions about his vote for Act 77. But Laughlin doesn’t regret it.

While he’d support making changes to state election law in line with a bill Wolf vetoed last month, Laughlin said the trade at the center of Act 77 — mail-in ballots for a repeal of straight ticket voting — likely aided the GOP down ballot.

“The Republicans won two statewide row offices last fall that I don’t believe we would have picked up had we not done away with the straight party voting,” Laughlin said.

Regardless of a candidate’s stance on mail-in ballots, the right GOP candidate has to support policies tightening state voting laws, Allegheny County Republican Chairman Sam DeMarco said.

He mentioned a more expansive voter ID law and signature verification of mail-in ballots as examples.

“I don’t believe Act 77 Is the litmus test, per se, but I can guarantee you that talking about election integrity is,” DeMarco told the Capital-Star. “You have people running around today saying that ‘I’m going to repeal this’ … we can’t do anything until we have a governor that will sign it.”

Wolf vetoes Republican voting bill; GOP pivots to constitutional referendums

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.