HARRISBURG – Four days after he vetoed a bill that called for Pennsylvania to borrow $90 million to help cover a portion of the cost of new voting machines, Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday announced he’s directing a state authority to take on the borrowing.
Republicans, angered by the veto, immediately questioned whether Wolf has the authority to borrow to the money.
Wolf, a Democrat, said he vetoed the voting reform bill over concerns about aspects of the legislation and that there is broad agreement that the state can’t expect the counties to foot the costs alone.
Democrats had objected to a proposal in Senate Bill 48 that would have eliminated straight party voting as a single-button voting option.
“Pennsylvania counties are well on their way to replacing their voting systems and I applaud their tremendous commitment to protecting our elections,” Wolf said. “I remain committed to supporting their efforts and this funding will help the counties to complete that process.”
Jeff Greenburg, Mercer County’s director of voter registration and elections, called Wolf’s action a “positive development.” He said the dispute over state funding for voting systems would not affect the county’s acquisition or implementation of new voting systems.
Any state assistance for purchasing voting machines would be reimbursement for local funds already spent, he said.
“We are hopeful this will finally get the ball rolling in order to ensure the financial burden on property owners will be reduced for this significant replacement effort,” Greenburg said.
Under the arrangement, the commonwealth would fund up to $90 million to reimburse counties for 60 percent of their actual costs to replace voting systems. The Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority may issue bonds, and the Department of State would make grants available to counties.
Mercer County has made an initial $342,802.31 payment toward the contract total of $976,214.25 for optical scan vote counters and ballot marking machines from ES&S, based in Omaha, Neb.
With Wolf’s proposal, Mercer County could receive a maximum of $585,728.55.
Republican leaders in the legislature expressed opposition to Wolf’s proposal.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing to learn that the governor finds it appropriate to put politics above the right of Pennsylvania citizens to vote based on their conscience instead of party label,” said state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, chairman of the House state government committee.
“I believe that he has received substantial push back from County Commissioners around the state as a result of his misinformed veto of SB 48,” said state Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, who was the prime sponsor of the voting reform bill vetoed by Wolf. “Now, he has stolen the bonding provision that my office wrote and was added to SB 48. However, the immediate question is what authority he has to have this bonding done by PEDFA?”
Gordner said Wolf “should have just signed into law SB 48.”
Senate Republicans are reviewing to determine if they think Wolf can “act on his own,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County.
State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York County, said Wolf’s move on Tuesday “is another example of executive overreach” and added “this continued march away from normal legislative order undermines the fabric of our constitutional democracy.”
Wolf, in response, told reporter Tuesday that he’s open to “cooperation” with Republicans if there is an alternative plan to come up with money.
“This can’t be an unfunded mandate” on counties, he said.
The state has told the counties to replace their voting machines with new equipment with paper ballots before the 2020 presidential election. That move was prompted by a settlement to a lawsuit filed by former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein after the 2016 election.
“Our counties appreciate the governor finding a way forward that recognizes both the county need for funding assistance as well as the broad funding support we had in the General Assembly,” said Kathi Cozzone, president of the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania. “There are few higher priorities for counties than the safe, accessible and secure administration of elections, and we are truly grateful for the support and assistance we will be receiving as we move to the next generation of voting systems.”
“The provision of funding from the commonwealth, coupled with funds already received from the federal government, will significantly reduce the need for use of local property tax dollars,” added Douglas E. Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “The collaboration and care of all involved, who take the privilege of voting to heart, is most appreciated.”
The Department of State will offer counties that use older models of hand-marked paper ballot voting systems an opportunity to request an extension until June 2021 to select new voting systems. However, there will be a financial incentive for implementing on the current schedule: counties that implement new voting systems by the 2020 primary as directed by the department will receive their full share of all available federal and state funds.