HARRISBURG — Separate bills proposing a ban on private funding for election operations as well as the elimination of drop boxes for mail-in ballots each passed through the Pennsylvania Senate last week.
The ban on private funds received bipartisan support. Eight Democrats joined all Senate Republicans Wednesday in approving the measure, 37-12. The vote on drop boxes, however, was strictly along party lines. It passed by a margin of 29-20.
Both bills now move for consideration in the state House, which also has a Republican majority. A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf wouldn’t say if either would face a veto if adopted by the House.
“We are here today to grab back the power that we are granted,” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward said, directly referencing a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to allow drop boxes. Ward and other Republicans criticized this decision as circumventing the legislative process.
Introduced by state Republican Sen. Lisa Baker, Senate Bill 982 is a response to private funding offered and accepted by one-third of Pennsylvania counties to supplement 2020 presidential election operations. A similar bill is pending in the House.
The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated an election cycle in which universal mail-in voting — itself a bipartisan effort that state Republicans have since attacked regarding its implementation — debuted for the first time. Pennsylvania voters cast 2.6 million mail-in ballots in the general election that year.
Measures to process mail-in ballots, enhance voter safety and mitigate the virus’s spread drove costs higher. There were 23 counties, Republican and Democrat alike, that accepted a combined $22.5 million from the organization, Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). Funds were used for employee overtime in some counties and, in others, equipment to process the mail-in ballots.
Republicans questioned, among other things, the funding source. Husband and wife Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, the latter the co-founder of Facebook, committed $350 million to the effort, CTCL states on its website.
Several Democrats in the Senate supported the intent of Baker’s bill. However, there was criticism that it offered no additional funding. An amendment offered by state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, committing $9.1 million in additional funds failed.
“Without funding, this is just another unfunded mandate from Harrisburg directed at our counties. I believe that government should solely fund elections but I can’t support legislation without a funding component,” Street said.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania lists election funding as a top legislative priority in 2022. Its executive director requested additional funds in written testimony to the Senate State Government Committee in July 2020, too.
“In advance of the election, counties across the state urgently asked the General Assembly to provide funding to make sure the election could be conducted efficiently and safely. Unfortunately, the Legislature did not respond to those requests,” Wolf’s press secretary, Elizabeth Rementer, said.
Republican Sen. Cris Dush, who offered the bill banning drop boxes, pointed out that drop boxes never were approved by the General Assembly. The idea “spawned” during Wolf’s emergency declaration for the pandemic — a declaration the Legislature voted to end last summer after receiving authority to do so by a statewide ballot referendum. His measure requires mail-in ballots to be delivered by mail or in-person to a county's primary election office.
Accusations of ballot stuffing were raised in Montgomery, Lackawanna and Lehigh counties in 2021. Video from the latter shows hundreds of instances of voters dropping off more than one ballot at a drop box, which is illegal. However, the instances were largely of someone dropping off two ballots and the district attorney there decided not to prosecute.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh/Northampton, said the restriction makes no sense. However, Republicans say the drop boxes in some counties are unsupervised and not under video surveillance, raising the potential for fraud.
“If you’re going to a drop box and you have your spouse’s ballot, who really cares? Has common sense really gone out the window in the building?” Boscola said.
“It might be convenient,” Republican Sen. David Argall, State Government Committee chair, said. “It is not legal.”
“It was never the intent of this Legislature to establish rogue voting facilities on street corners that have no county board of elections oversight,” Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said.