Pennsylvania Election 2024 Ballots
Matt Slocum/AP

The Partisan Split on Early Voting Is Sharpening in Pennsylvania

Competing bills in the state legislature reveal how the divide on voting is still changing the future of elections.

From one chamber to the other in the Pennsylvania statehouse, you’ll find competing messages on how the battleground state should vote.

Democratic House Speaker Joanna McClinton, armed with a one-vote majority, introduced a bill Tuesday that would enact early in-person voting and same-day registration in future elections. Down the hall in the Republican-majority Senate, senators moved forward with a bill along party lines banning ballot drop boxes and satellite locations.

The senator behind that bill made it clear that eliminating all early voting is his final goal.

“This legislation will not completely prevent ballot harvesting because it will not eliminate mail-in ballots, however, it is a crucial step in the right direction,” Republican Sen. Cris Dush wrote in a memo on the bill to lawmakers.

The future of voting in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country is still fraught after former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election and his continued hatred of voting by mail. How state lawmakers navigate that divide now in Pennsylvania could prove crucial to the next elections.

While state lawmakers and advocacy groups behind the push for early voting emphasized it’s nonpartisan, voting access has become anything but that in the state legislature. It’s a far cry from a few years ago during the pandemic when Republican lawmakers were the advocates behind Act 77, which enabled universal mail-in voting. They tried to tank the same measure after the 2020 election, but the state Supreme Court upheld it.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia allow early in-person voting. Those states fall across the political spectrum, from traditionally conservative states like North Dakota and Louisiana to historically liberal states like New York and Massachusetts.

However, any voting outside of going in person on Election Day is contentious within Republican leadership. The Republican National Committee has flip-flopped on early voting, announcing last week that it was shutting down the Bank Your Vote initiative and then declaring in a memo two days later that it would keep the program, The Washington Post reported.

Advocates of early in-person voting point to specific advantages, like giving senior citizens and people with disabilities more time to vote.

“This should be something that should be supported in a bipartisan manner and has been shown in a variety of states to be something that makes voting more accessible to voters across political parties,” said Patrick Williamson, an attorney with the Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan organization that aims to increase voter participation.

Mail-in voting in Pennsylvania has disproportionately benefited Democrats, with a 3.3:1 mail-in application ratio over Republicans in 2023. Arnaud Armstrong, executive director of the Republican-aligned Win Again PAC, is trying to narrow that early-voting gap for November. He’s seen firsthand how Republicans have embraced the early-voting system in Nevada and Georgia.

Yet Armstrong said he’s strongly opposed to Pennsylvania adopting early in-person voting.

“If we continue to expand this, particularly in battleground states, where the Democrats are organized and ready to go after it, and we’re not, we’re once again going to be caught with our pants down,” Armstrong said.

Getting Republican activists on board for mail-in voting “has been like herding cats,” Armstrong said. He said adding in-person early voting as an option would only create confusion and distrust among Republicans.

“There’s a reason that Democrats are pushing this because they have the confidence that this would be a major boon to their turnout operations, which are very effective and very aggressive. We cannot match that at this point,” he said.

Sign up for the latest from NOTUS.

Salewa Ogunmefun, executive director at the nonprofit Pennsylvania Voice, has seen divisions on mail-in voting continue to grow over the last 10 years between Democrats and Republicans in the commonwealth.

“It’s become more of a partisan issue here in Pennsylvania because, at the national level, it’s become a much more partisan issue,” Ogunmefun said.

That divide is on display in Harrisburg, where, in a split legislature, bipartisan support is necessary to get any election reform enacted.

“I think it’s difficult for me to predict what’s going to happen. I think that the Senate over the last few years, transparently, has been very clear,” Ogunmefun said.

If McClinton’s bill for same-day registration and early in-person voting does pass both chambers, it wouldn’t go into effect until 2027, with the time needed to implement electronic poll books across the state. In a press conference on the bill on Tuesday, McClinton said enacting the measures is a “commonsense” step that should have bipartisan support.

“While there’s so many at this critical hour who want to continue to sow distrust in our free and fair elections, that want to continue to delegitimize our elections and demonize election workers, it’s more important now than ever to restore trust and to take meaningful steps to strengthen our system,” she said.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.