HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a bill that would have provided funding for voting machines but would also have eliminated straight-party voting as a single-button ballot option.
“Pennsylvania must secure its elections and provide real reform that makes it easier to vote,” Wolf said. “Senate Bill 48 makes changes to our elections that I do not believe strike the right balance to improve access to voters or security.”
The move means that counties are still waiting for word on how or whether the state will help them pay to replace voting machines. The state agreed to switch to voting machines with paper backups in the settlement to a lawsuit filed by Green Party candidate Jill Stein after the 2016 election.
Wolf’s February budget proposal called for the state to provide $15 million to help counties pay for new machines. Senate Bill 48 would have allowed the state to borrow up to $90 million to cover as much as 60 percent of the counties’ costs for replacing voting machines. His veto means the new state budget includes no funding to help counties pay for the machines.
“Wolf remains committed to additional support for counties,” said J.J. Abbott, a Wolf spokesman. “He is evaluating next steps to assist counties with procuring more secure voting machines with a paper trail.”
Ken Kroski, a spokesman for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said counties will continue to work with the governor’s office to try to come up with a solution that provides funding for the machines.
“The Governor’s office has indicated that the Governor understands counties’ need for immediate funding for voting equipment and that he remains committed to the funding,” Kroski said.
The prime sponsor of the legislation, Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, blasted Wolf’s move, saying the governor caved to pressure from the Democratic Party in a move that will leave counties straining to cover the cost of replacing voting machines.
“I am disappointed that Governor Tom Wolf chose to give in to political pressure from national Democratic operatives and veto the election reform and voting machine funding bill,” Gordner said. “In doing so, Governor Wolf has turned his back on our County Commissioners from every county in the state.”
Gordner said county officials hoped the state would cover at least half the cost of replacing the voting machines.
But it also would have eliminated the option of voting for a straight party vote using a single vote instead of voting for each candidate.
Proponents of the change said Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that have single-party voting as an option on the ballot. In addition to Pennsylvania, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have straight party voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Texas legislature voted in 2017 to eliminate straight-party voting as an option, but the law doesn’t take effect until next year, according to the NCSL.
The Michigan legislature tried to eliminate straight-party voting in 2016, but a federal court judge stopped the move, saying there was evidence it “disproportionally affected” African American voters, according to the NCSL. That decision was overturned by a higher appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. Straight-party voting in that state was resurrected when voters approved it in a statewide ballot proposal last November.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said getting rid of the straight party voting option would be a “good government” reform.
In debate in the state House, Democratic lawmakers said the change could disenfranchise minority voters who are used to voting with the straight-party option.
“As we approach an election with anticipated large turnout and new voting technology, I’m concerned the isolated removal of a convenient voting option would increase waiting times and could discourage participation,” Wolf said. “I repeatedly sought improvements to this bill that would ease access to voting and decrease waiting times, but those changes were not accepted.”
In a joint statement, Senate President Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said with his veto Wolf “now fully owns this unfunded mandate on counties which will result in higher property taxes across the Commonwealth.”
They added that they’d heard complaints from rural Republican lawmakers unhappy about losing straight party voting in areas where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
“Nevertheless, we pursued this measure because we believe all races should be decided by individual choices, rather than group voting,” Scarnati and Corman said in the statement. “Most other states, including liberal-leaning states, agree with the elimination of straight-party voting.”
Advocates who’ve lobbied for election reforms said the veto comes after the debate over fixing the state’s voting systems got derailed by politics.
“What has been an open, transparent and bipartisan process for most of this legislative session went off the rails during these final weeks of the fiscal year,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a Harrisburg-based coalition of nonprofit and advocacy groups. “It’s disappointing that partisanship sidetracked important reform and election security efforts.”
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.