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FILE: State Senator Ryan Aument speaks during the opening of the Columbia Market house in Columbia Saturday May 29, 2021.

A Republican senator from Lancaster County said he hopes his proposal to suspend Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail voting law is not enacted by the Legislature.

Instead, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, said his goal is to pressure lawmakers from both parties to address flaws in the state elections law that many officials, Aument included, say contributed to widespread distrust among voters over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

“My hope is the suspension isn’t even needed,” Aument said. “The hope is that folks will come together, we’ll make the fixes ... to again get voters' assurance.”

Aument said he supports no-excuse mail voting and believes there is still general agreement among Republicans to keep it, though he knows some of his colleagues want to repeal the 2019 law, Act 77, that created no-excuse absentee ballots.

Already, the Legislature’s Republican majority, most of whose members voted for Act 77 less than two years ago, is gearing up to change the law. It’s an effort fueled, in part, by baseless conspiracy theories that mail ballot fraud threw Pennsylvania to Joe Biden over Donald Trump in November.

Aument’s proposal would suspend no-excuse absentee voting until Act 77 is revised. If the Legislature fails to take action by the 2023 primary election, the no-excuse absentee ballot provisions would be reinstated.

A message Aument sent to fellow senators does not describe specific fixes, instead recounting problems Lancaster County had with mail-in ballots in last month's primary, all of which were the fault of the county's ballot vendor. 

“My hope is we do fix it and we do fix it much sooner” than 2023, he said. But if the General Assembly doesn’t act in its current two-year session, “then the voters can weigh in and elect legislators who will and they will be given the opportunity to do the changes in the next session,” he said.

Asked about Aument’s bill, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he would oppose any proposal that makes it harder for Pennsylvanians to vote. Aument, though, said he's not convinced the governor will use his veto pen.

“We all agree that there are legitimate procedural issues with the current system, so the goal of this legislation is to push everyone to enact these needed reforms quickly,” Aument said in an email.

Political messages

No matter how Aument describes his motives for pushing to suspend mail balloting, his proposal comes amid a broader debate over the 2020 election driven largely by grassroots conservatives. These groups not only want to eliminate no-excuse absentee ballots, but enact other reforms, such as mandating voter ID and expanding the pool of partisan poll watchers eligible to monitor voting.

Aument will be up for reelection in 2022; he does not currently face a primary challenger, nor has any group called for fielding one. But when he posted about his effort to fix Act 77 on his Facebook page, more than one commenter criticized him for supporting the law in the first place.

"Welcome to the Party Ryan AUMENT," one wrote. "(S)ure took you a long time to get here ... sure hope Lancaster County Constituents are seeing this." Another commented, "WE DON'T WANT ACT77 AND WE DON'T WANT THE Fraud No Excuse mail in Ballots. What part of that don't you Understand ? Stop trying to salvage an Unconstitutional Act."

Aument said his proposal is not intended to “appease any particular group,” though he reiterated that voters have legitimate concerns about the administration of the 2020 election and that he hopes his proposal is used to accelerate election law changes. 

Another advantage of his proposal is that it could appeal to both mainstream and grassroots conservatives because it would suspend mail voting for next year’s midterm elections, when Pennsylvania voters will elect a new governor and U.S. Senator. In the 2020 election, Democrats voted by mail at much higher rates than Republicans.

Aument said his goal is not to give Republicans the edge in these high-stakes races and insisted his proposal would not disenfranchise voters because they would still be able to vote in person or provide an excuse to qualify for an absentee ballot.

Aument also said he believes the 2020 election results, including President Biden’s win in the state, would have been the same without no-excuse absentee ballots.

“There are a lot of people that assume that (it would’ve been different),” Aument said. “There are voters who voted for one candidate over the other who think they wouldn’t have shown up in person to vote. I don’t believe that’s the case.”

That’s not a view shared publicly often by officials on either side of the partisan divide. Polls show that a slim majority of Republican voters believe that Trump actually won last year’s election, and Republican leaders in states like Georgia and Florida have moved this year to make it harder for voters to obtain an absentee ballot or to access early voting centers.

For voting rights advocates, the moves by Republicans on election issues is worrying. Even though Aument and other Republican lawmakers say their efforts to change Pennsylvania’s voting law are responding to concerns they’re hearing from constituents, many of them are repeating Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen from him, said Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We’re seeing in Pennsylvania and across the country that federal leadership and state leadership sowed distrust about the election by perpetuating lies about election fraud and election irregularities for which there is no evidence,” she said. “They are now saying, ‘We’re hearing from our constituents that they want us to address the problems.’ There’s this false circular logic; by spreading ‘the big lie’ about the election, now they’re pointing to the concern that they created."

And election advocates said they don’t understand what halting no-excuse mail voting would do other than to potentially disenfranchise Black and brown voters.

“We made huge steps forward (with Act 77), it doesn’t make sense to then take two steps back, just to take those two steps forward again,” said Elizabeth Alex, the director of organizing for Latino and immigrant advocacy organization CASA.

The changes to Pennsylvania’s voting laws in 2019 greatly increased access for people who otherwise would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot, Alex said. She saw voters who work multiple jobs and long hours be able to cast a vote for the first time, she said, noting that many voters can’t  make it to their polling place in the 13 hours (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.) they are open.

Making major changes to election laws so soon after 2019’s Act 77 -- which didn’t go into effect until the 2020 primary election -- may also confuse voters.

“When legislatures are changing the very same rules back and forth, that creates some whiplash and creates an educational challenge,” Sweren-Becker added.

Elections officials

For county election officials who have been calling for changes to Act 77 since 2019, halting no-excuse mail voting won’t address their actual problem with the law:  it gives counties too little time to pre-canvass mail-in ballost. Currently, county election offices can’t begin the laborious process of opening envelopes, checking voter signatures and preparing ballots to be scanned until 7 a.m. on Election Day.

Efforts to expand the pre-canvassing window failed in 2020, even as demand for mail-in ballots exploded with voters seeking to avoid in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. The impasse with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf centered on Republicans’ efforts to change other parts of the state’s voting laws, like banning counties from installing ballot drop boxes in multiple locations.

“We have outlined two very simple solutions that would ...  address the majority of challenges we have faced in implementing mail-in ballots, and we need the state and the General Assembly to step up to help counties, and to help our voters," Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel said Tuesday during a press conference organized by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Those fixes wouldn’t suspend mail-in balloting. The county commissioners association want lawmakers to change Act 77 before it breaks for recess this summer to allow election officials to pre-canvass ballots up to three weeks in advance of Election Day and extend the mail-in ballot application deadline.

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