HARRISBURG, PA — From COVID-19 regulations to budgetary issues, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature seldom find themselves standing on common ground. …
HARRISBURG, PA — From COVID-19 regulations to budgetary issues, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature seldom find themselves standing on common ground. As the mid-term elections draw nearer, the topics of how Pennsylvanians vote—and for whom—has proved to be yet another point of contention.
Amid disagreements over the legality of mail-in voting and the process of redrawing the commonwealth’s congressional districts, the state’s court system has been tasked with again playing the mediator between the other two bickering branches.
On January 28, the Commonwealth Court ruled that the 2019 law allowing registered voters to cast ballots through the mail is unconstitutional.
Voting by mail was a hot topic across the country during the 2020 Presidential election, especially as then-President Donald Trump raised unfounded fears that allowing voters to do so would lead to widespread fraud. PA Republicans in the General Assembly made repeated attempts to reverse or limit the option to vote by mail. Nearly all 15 of the Republicans clamoring for the chance to run for governor this year have promised to repeal the law allowing mail-in voting.
Despite the controversy, it’s been used several times since 2019 and has proved to be a very popular option for casting a ballot, especially during a global pandemic. Evidence of widespread voter fraud has never come to light.
In the recent 3-2 decision by the Republican-controlled court, President Judge Mary Leavitt wrote that the PA Constitution clearly states that voters are required to show up in person on Election Day in order to participate. Residents must meet specific requirements such as being deployed in the military or having a disability that prevents them from coming in person, she said, and any changes to these requirements must be made through a constitutional amendment.
Leavitt cited a number of past court cases in defense of this position.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated the Military Absentee Act of 1839 and the 1923 Absentee Voting Act because… legislation, no matter how laudable its purpose, that relaxes the in-person voting requirement must be preceded by an amendment to the Constitution,” she wrote.
Millions of ballots have been cast through the postal service in Pennsylvania since 2019. Leavitt noted mail-in voting’s popularity in her opinion.
“No-excuse mail-in voting makes the exercise of the franchise more convenient and has been used four times in the history of Pennsylvania. Approximately 1.38 million voters have expressed their interest in voting by mail permanently,” she wrote. “If presented to the people, a constitutional amendment… is likely to be adopted. But a constitutional amendment must be presented to the people and adopted into our fundamental law before legislation authorizing no-excuse mail-in voting can ‘be placed upon our statute books.’”
Aside from the Commonwealth Court’s two dissenting justices, some legal analysts disagree with Leavitt’s interpretation.
“The state constitution requires that absentee voting be available to voters with disabilities, those who will not be in their precinct on Election Day for business reasons, for religious purposes, and for people deployed in the military,” said Marian Schneider, senior voting rights policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “To read that language to mean that absentee voting is, therefore, forbidden for all other voters is a serious misreading of the constitution.”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration immediately appealed the decision to Pennsylvanian’s highest court. The PA Supreme Court has come down in favor of mail-in voting in the past, and is expected to do so once again, rendering the Commonwealth Court’s decision moot.
Wolf’s office criticized state Republicans for trying to walk back the 2019 law “in the service of the ‘big lie’” espoused by Trump that voting by mail will delegitimize elections.
“We need leaders to support removing more barriers to voting, not trying to silence the people,” the governor’s office said.
Trump’s political action committee put out a statement of its own, calling the court’s decision “big news” and saying, “Great patriotic spirit is developing at a level that nobody thought possible. Make America Great Again!”
It’s been a busy time for the Commonwealth Court, which spent Thursday and Friday of last week hearing testimony from Wolf’s office, Republican legislators and better-government groups as each argued for Pennsylvania’s next congressional map.
The redrawn map, determining which members of the U.S. House represent which districts of Pennsylvania, will have important implications on elections for the next decade. Nonpartisan groups like Fair Districts PA have said that in recent history, Pennsylvania has had some of the most Republican-leaning, gerrymandered maps in the country.
Maps are traditionally chosen in PA similar to the way a bill becomes law: House and Senate members in Harrisburg vote one through, then the map proceeds to the governor’s desk to either get approved or vetoed.
Earlier this year, the state House voted through a map—drawn by a former Republican county commissioner—which received support from Democrats. Since the map gave a slight edge to Republicans in future elections, experts predicted that it was bound for a veto from Wolf.
Despite its seemingly doomed status, the state Senate proceeded to pass through the same map, which unsurprisingly received a veto once it landed on Wolf’s desk.
Lawmakers and the governor have missed their deadline to come to an agreement, so the task has been turned over to the Commonwealth Court.
Republican Rep. Seth Grove released a scorching criticism of the governor for the veto.
“Under the cover of darkness, much like the development of Gov. Tom Wolf’s map, the governor issued a vague and partisan gerrymandered-filled veto of the first citizens’ congressional map ever adopted by the General Assembly,” Grove said. “Once again, Wolf has shown his failed leadership through his unwillingness to work across the aisle with Republicans in the legislature on a constitutionally mandated requirement.”
But groups like Draw The Lines PA—which pitched its own map to the Commonwealth Court last week—placed the blame at the General Assembly’s doorstep for attempting to push through a map that they knew the governor would never allow.
“We are disappointed that the legislature failed to reach a bipartisan compromise and instead passed a Congressional redistricting map that showed no sign of bipartisan negotiations,” the group’s chair said.
At press time, the Commonwealth Court has 14 maps to choose from and is expected to make a decision early in the week—potentially before this edition of River Reporter goes to print.
For more coverage of Pennsylvania's redistricting process, click here.
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