By State Representative Eric Nelson
What was America like in 1937? Slower-paced, to be sure. Less than half of us owned cars. Boarding a plane and traveling from New York to Los Angeles in a few hours was basically unheard of.
Communication was slower too. There were no computers and no internet. On the rare occasion someone owned a phone, it lived on a desk, and not in a pocket. Only about 10% of farms even had electricity. Instead of using Twitter, the president addressed us by radio while American families huddled around for a 30-minute “fireside chat.”
Eighty-four years ago, America certainly looked different. So why are Pennsylvania voters in 2021 forced to settle for an Election Code that was written in 1937? Retrofitting an old election system with patchwork updates to fit 21st-century needs and technology is neither efficient nor practical.
What Pennsylvania voters deserve – and what we in the Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf must work together to provide – is a comprehensive update to the system, a modernized Election Code that better provides both access and safeguards to Pennsylvanians’ ballots. That system update is encapsulated in the Pennsylvania Voting Rights Protection Act, reintroduced by House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove as House Bill 1800.
Over the last two decades, it has become clear House Bill 1800 is a desperately needed solution to deep problems in the state’s election systems. Those problems are realized by the crisis of confidence in the election system, both across the Commonwealth and nationally. In 2001, only 15% of Democrats believed President George W. Bush had won the election “fair and square.” For the record, that’s far less than the 45% of Republicans who believe that President Joe Biden won fairly in 2020. The 2016 and 2018 elections also saw unprecedented levels of mistrust, some from Democrats, such as Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, and others from Republicans, including Kentucky’s then-incumbent governor Matt Bevin. In Pennsylvania, a post-election poll revealed less than half of voters say they’re confident President Biden won without cheating.
It is imperative the people of the Commonwealth trust our election system, which means it is incumbent on Pennsylvania leaders to create a 21st-century Election Code worthy of their trust. But where to begin?
Under the leadership of Chairman Grove, we conducted 10 in-depth hearings throughout spring of 2021. We learned about the lack of uniformity between counties: some counties saw voters waiting in line for hours, while others moved through in minutes. Some counties’ election offices received millions of dollars in private funding from Silicon Valley “dark money,” while others relied solely on public dollars. National partisan entities like Rock the Vote uploaded entire batches of voters to the Department of State, raising ethical questions about what out-of-state organizations are doing meddling with our voter rolls.
It is imperative that the people of the Commonwealth trust our election system, which means it is incumbent on Pennsylvania leaders to create a 21st-century Election Code worthy of their trust.
We heard concerns about the lack of election safeguards: how ballots, especially mail-in and absentee ballots, were not adequately secured with voter identification, despite the myriad ID options available for free to all voters. We heard from local election officials about the burden of a registration deadline too close to Election Day. We heard alternatives from officials in other states, including Ohio’s secretary of State.
These hearings informed Chairman Grove, myself and others on the committee on what to include in the first round of election modernization legislation, House Bill 1300, which was a comprehensive “system update” to Pennsylvania’s Election Code. Above all, it would recalibrate Pennsylvania elections to fit the needs of today. Sadly, undoubtedly due to partisan posturing, Gov. Wolf vetoed House Bill 1300 without any negotiation over the summer.
The governor’s veto put him out of step with the Commonwealth. Pennsylvanians are demanding a modern election system built for the 21st century. Gov. Wolf now has the opportunity to correct his mistake by signing the legislation’s second iteration, House Bill 1800, into law. If he chooses not to act, a constitutional amendment establishing many of these provisions will be on the ballot in a few years, because Pennsylvanians deserve a modernized election system – whether the governor thinks so or not.
It’s not too late. Legislators have come to the table with House Bill 1800, and we’re ready to negotiate with Gov. Wolf to create an Election Code that protects access for voters and ensures their votes are safeguarded. Together, we can build a system that enables trust and confidence in Pennsylvania’s election results – something that a system built for 1937 will never be able to do.
State Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland) serves Pennsylvania’s 57th Legislative District.