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Pennsylvania Republicans Look To Evade A Veto And Enact Voter ID By Ballot Measure

GOP lawmakers want to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to include a voter ID requirement. The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg is seen here in January.
GOP lawmakers want to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to include a voter ID requirement. The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg is seen here in January.

Facing a veto on their sweeping plan to overhaul state election laws, Pennsylvania Republicans have set in motion a plan to circumvent the Democratic governor and create a mandatory voter ID requirement.

They aim to do it via an amendment to the state constitution — a process that requires approval from the Legislature and subsequent victory on a statewide ballot measure.

Critics say it's a technique that Republicans appear increasingly willing to use as they clash with Gov. Tom Wolf over highly politicized issues such as voting and the pandemic.

"The Republicans don't want to go through the legislative process for their far-right wacky ideas because they know the governor will veto it," Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes said. "So now they're just going to change the constitution."

But GOP supporters of the tactic argue that approval by a majority of Pennsylvania voters would signal that an idea has merit.

"If that's a veto no matter what, that's why we have a constitutional amendment, to let the voters decide," said Republican Jake Corman, the Senate president pro tempore. "And they will ultimately make the final decision on whether there should be voter ID in Pennsylvania."

Still, Democrats see political gamesmanship. Hughes, who voted against the amendment when it passed the state Senate last week on near party lines, has served in the Legislature for decades. He said he has seen a lot of procedural tricks during his time in Harrisburg, but this one strikes him as a new development.

Constitutional amendments are relatively rare in Pennsylvania, in large part because passing them is time-consuming. They have to be approved in identical form by the Legislature in two consecutive two-year sessions, then go to voters for a referendum.

This year, though, the GOP has found success with this strategy. Last month, voters approved two Republican-sponsored amendments that gave lawmakers more authority and led to the end of Wolf's coronavirus emergency orders.

"It's clearly a pattern that has developed in the last year," Hughes said. "And where does it stop? If you take it to its end, is it: 'We want to name some roads and bridges and we're going to pass a constitutional amendment to call I-76 Joe Schmo's Highway'?"

A GOP Legislature but a Democratic governor

Following the 2020 election, and in the wake of baseless claims of fraud by former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, many GOP-controlled state legislatures have moved to enact new voter restrictions.

But in states such as Pennsylvania — with Republican-led legislatures and Democratic governors — the process has often been more combative.

In Michigan, for instance, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she would veto any Republican proposal that included voting restrictions. In response, GOP leaders raised the possibility of initiating a voter petition drive to evade a veto.

In Pennsylvania, unfounded election fraud claims and top lawmakers' willingness to entertain them led to months of hearings — none of which proved there was widespread fraud — and resulted in a sweeping bill that would overhaul many aspects of the state's elections.

The measure includes bipartisan provisions, such as in-person early voting, but also others that Democrats maintain would disenfranchise voters, such as tighter deadlines for absentee ballot applications and a requirement that all voters present a form of ID. Wolf has promised to veto the bill, should it pass the Legislature.

So that has Republicans looking toward the constitutional amendment plan.

"It's very popular in Pennsylvania"

Republican Jake Corman, the state Senate president pro tempore, says recent polls  appear to show that voters are on the same page as Republicans when it comes to voter ID.
Matt Rourke / AP
Republican Jake Corman, the state Senate president pro tempore, says recent polls appear to show that voters are on the same page as Republicans when it comes to voter ID.

The proposal's sponsors include top GOP caucus officials and more hard-line conservative members of the party, such as Sen. Doug Mastriano, one of Pennsylvania's loudest voices in favor of baselessly rejecting the 2020 presidential election results.

Corman, the highest-ranking lawmaker in the chamber and a key player in quietly shepherding the voter ID amendment to Senate approval, has his own connections to baseless election fraud claims. He signed a letter that his caucus sent to Congress just before the Jan. 6 election certification, urging a delay until Pennsylvania's vote could be further investigated.

Months later, sitting in his Harrisburg office as the amendment moved toward final Senate passage, he tried to distance himself from speculation about fraud without saying whether he believed there had been any in the 2020 election.

"Obviously you can't have a democracy if people don't believe in the integrity of the vote, and whether the last election was — you know, we can argue that forever and I'm not taking a side on that — my point is moving forward, we should put all the security in it," he said.

Corman added he believes that if a poll were taken, "You would get a percentage of people who didn't believe the last election came off the way it should. And whether that's accurate or not, having that large of a population not believe it is a problem."

The Senate's amendment is much more targeted than the larger election overhaul bill, concerning only the implementation of voter ID.

But on that issue, it's actually more restrictive. While the omnibus bill would allow several ID options beyond a state-issued driver's license or ID card, the amendment would only permit "valid government-issued identification" or, if a voter isn't casting a ballot in person, "proof" of that identification.

Corman noted that recent polls have appeared to show that voters are on the same page as Republicans when it comes to voter ID. This month, Franklin and Marshall College found that 74% of voters who answered a survey said they support photo identification at the polls.

"It's very popular in Pennsylvania," Corman said.

If both chambers agree to move the amendment and it makes it through all its legislative hurdles, the soonest it could go to voters for a referendum would be 2023.

"An old play in a very old playbook"

This isn't Pennsylvania's first foray into voter ID. In 2012, with Republicans controlling the Legislature and the governor's office, they passed a bill requiring voters to present a state-issued driver's license or nondriver ID. It became known as one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country at the time. Then-House Majority Leader Mike Turzai bragged that the bill would secure a victory in Pennsylvania for Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee that year.

The law wasn't in effect long. After being used in a primary election, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court temporarily stopped its implementation ahead of the 2012 presidential vote, arguing the burdens it placed on voters could lead to disenfranchisement. To get a state ID, voters had to present a birth certificate, a Social Security card and two forms of documentation of their current residency.

A lower court judge ultimately found the law unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction. Under former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, the state didn't appeal it.

For Marc Stier, director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, the current conversation has felt like déjà vu.

As in 2012, he said, "What it will be is something that could make it more difficult for some people to vote."

Stier has a personal example: his mother-in-law, who died recently and had been living in a nursing home.

"She didn't have an ID anymore. She stopped driving a number of years ago. She didn't need a picture ID, so we didn't get one," he said. "She wouldn't be able to vote if she had to have a voter ID, and there are lots of older people like that."

Stier spoke from the Capitol steps recently, where a group rallied for an unrelated reason: pushing for lawmakers to put more federal pandemic relief money into education.

Kari Holmes, a reverend from Allentown who is involved with the interfaith group POWER, said the issues are intertwined.

"It's an old play in a very old playbook," she said. "We're talking about civil rights — legislation that makes it so that people's voices can be heard. ... [For Republicans to] then turn around and make it so that that can't happen — it makes it unquestionably obvious what you're doing."

A version of this story was first published by WHYY.

Copyright 2021 WHYY