ballot counting Wednesday

County workers and volunteers count mail-in ballots for the second day inside the Lancaster County Convention Center on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

A majority of Pennsylvania registered voters say they support “major changes” to the state’s election law, including photo identification and signature validation rules favored by Republicans in the General Assembly, a new Franklin & Marshall College Poll found.

The poll also found increased pessimism about the state’s direction among respondents, including about their own personal finances. That sentiment likely contributed to dipping approval ratings for Gov. Tom Wolf and President Joe Biden: just 39% of respondents rated the governor’s job performance as “excellent” or “good”, and less than half (44%) said the same of  Biden’s performance.

In the wake of the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania and across the country began advocating new election rules designed to roll back reforms like no-excuse absentee ballots and generous registration deadlines. That message appears to have sunk in with voters in Pennsylvania.

The F&M poll found that 81% of commonwealth voters said they support requiring election officials to match signatures on mail-in ballots to the signatures on file at local election offices.  Republicans support restricting voter access at much higher rates than Democrats or independents: almost all Republican respondents (95%) favor adding voter ID requirements, compared to 47% of Democrats and 77% of third-party or independent voters.

Fifty-nine percent of Republicans said they support eliminating no-excuse mail-in voting, which was part of a set of voting reforms championed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2019. Additionally, 61% of Republicans do not support allowing election officials to begin counting mail ballots prior to Election Day -- a change county election officials have been asking for since the law’s passage

Stephen Medvic, a Franklin & Marshall College government professor who worked on the poll, said the support for election law changes shows voters are taking cues from their elected leaders. One example, he said, is that 61% of Republican respondents oppose expanding the pre-canvassing window for mail-in ballots (i.e. opening and preparing mail-in ballots for counting ahead of Election Day), a change that wouldn’t have been controversial prior to last year’s election. 

“Just to be efficient, this shouldn’t really be that controversial, but it has taken on a partisan edge to it,” Medvic said of pre-canvassing.

Medvic also said respondents likely have a superficial understanding of these issues, speculating that fewer Democratic respondents would have said they support signature verification efforts if they had been questioned more carefully in a focus group.

“People haven’t thought as much about signature matching, it sounds reasonable,” Medvic said. “But when you get into questions like, ‘How exactly do you match a signature? Is it foolproof?’ … If you start to hear leaders in your party saying signature matching is iffy [to execute], I suspect Democrats would then start to be skeptical.”

Growing pessimism

The poll found that few voters continue to view COVID-19 as a top concern. But it found rising pessimism about Pennsylvania’s trajectory among respondents: Just 35% of voters believe the state is “headed in the right direction,” down from 57% in October 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Thirty percent of voters said they are most concerned about “government and politicians,” followed by 15% of voters who said they are most worried about the economy, including unemployment and personal finances.

These concerns about politics could be attributed to ever-increasing partisanship and growing frustration with government generally, Medvic said.

“Maybe it’s not the disease that’s now threatening us, it’s our political dysfunction,” he added.

President Biden continues to have higher approval ratings on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic than his overall job approval, according to the poll. His approval rating is also about 20 percentage points lower than former President Barack Obama’s ratings at the same point in his presidency, though it outpaces former President Donald Trump’s rating at the same point.

Approval ratings for national officials are becoming less of an indicator of how good of a job a politician is doing, Medvic said. Instead, they now most often show party polarization.

Wolf also hit a low approval rating in his second term as governor, following a blow to his record in the May 2021 primary election, where 53% of voters wanted to rein in his emergency powers.

Still, this does not reach his lowest approval rating since he’s been in office, which was during the nine-month 2015-16 budget impasse that left him with a 31% approval rating at the time.

This dip in Wolf’s approval rating is not surprising, said Berwood Yost, the director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. 

“They used to call it at the presidential level the ‘six year itch,’” Yost said. “After about six years, an executive can expect to have some sagging ratings and some electoral consequences.”

The F&M poll findings are based on phone or online interviews with 444 registered Pennsylvania voters conducted between June 7 through June 13. The poll surveyed 205 Democrats, 177 Republicans and 62 independents, which is a sample size determined by the total number of voters in the state, with Democrats having more registered voters than Republicans. The poll had a 6.4% sample error.

What to Read Next