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Voting rights push meets state restrictions

President Joe Biden’s vow to pass voting rights legislation could run into new opposition in states like Pennsylvania, where Republican lawmakers are pushing for strict voting laws.

Biden made his case this week in Tulsa, Okla., the scene of a massacre against the city’s Black population 100 years ago. The president called for a month of concerted action toward passing a sweeping voting-rights bill, saying: “I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage.”

Democrats in Congress are pressing the For the People Act, a bill that would establish a slate of reforms intended to make voting easier. Among proposed changes are same-day voter registration, automatic registration and nationwide early voting.

The bill has the backing of Pennsylvania’s entire nine-member Democratic delegation, while a Senate version includes Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., as a sponsor.

Advocates say the changes would increase turnout, as mail-in voting did at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. But opponents — chiefly Republican legislators in GOP-controlled states — have moved swiftly to restrict early and remote voting, citing fears of potential fraud.

The stakes are high in Pennsylvania, a toss-up state with a GOP Legislature and a Democratic governor. Republicans here have moved in fits and starts to pass more restrictive voting laws, with a new wave proposed this spring.

“From state to state across the country, democracy is under attack. We continue to see the extent of damage Republicans can do,” Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, said in a letter last month, published by the House Democrats. “They are prioritizing political parties over voters and making it harder than ever to vote by creating unnecessary restrictions and complications to voting across all formats.”

In late May, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, proposed a temporary suspension of mail-in voting, either until 2023 or “until elected leaders can come together to make the necessary adjustments to this law.”

Aument’s idea comes just weeks after Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair proposed a total repeal of mail-in voting. And GOP lawmakers proposed a raft of changes in a 99-page report last month, including a voter ID mandate.

“We have a god-awful election law, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, told the Philadelphia Inquirer before the report’s release. “How do we improve access? We need to make voting easier, and harder to cheat?”

Cheating remains a key discussion point for elected Republicans, even though most have shied away from openly endorsing conspiracy theories about a rigged 2020 election.

Some elected officials are pressing for less sweeping reforms as the General Assembly prepares for a summer break. This week, county commissioners called urgently for lesser changes that could take pressure off county election officers in this November’s local elections.

Members of the County Commissioners Association are pressing lawmakers to give them more time to count ballots on election day, as well as an earlier deadline to apply for mail-in ballots.

While Pennsylvania’s lawmakers may not pass much through a Democratic governor, their colleagues in other states are hard at work. At least 12 states have passed laws restricting vote-by-mail and eight states have passed laws making it harder to vote in-person since the 2020 election, according to the progressive Brennan Center for Justice.

Rep. backs repeal of below-minimum wage

U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District signed on this week to a bill that would phase out lower-than-minimum wage for workers with disabilities.

The bill, which has a handful of cosponsors in both parties, would eliminate the so-called subminimum wage over five years. Since the 1930s, federal labor law has allowed some businesses to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage, which stands at $7.25 per hour.

The bill, H.R. 2373, would issue grants to states and some businesses to assist in transitioning the workers to normal pay rates.

Wages rise, but minimum stays low

Meanwhile, Wolf and his allies in Harrisburg are renewing calls for a higher wage — as pay in some sectors rises amid a post-pandemic hiring surge.

Wolf joined business owners and lawmakers last week in calling for a higher minimum wage, a case he has made for years in the face of Republican skepticism. The state minimum wage matches the federal minimum at $7.25, a rate that has remained the same nationally since 2009.

“Increasing the minimum wage puts more money into the pockets of workers, which gives local businesses more customers,” Wolf said at a public event late last month.

Wages in some sectors have risen in recent weeks, with employers fighting for applicants.

Kennywood theme park outside Pittsburgh raised its starting pay for high school graduates from $9 to $13 this year, the New York Times noted this week. A Pittsburgh ice cream parlor made national headlines after a wage hike to $15 drew thousands of applicants.

And fast-food chains and franchisees are posting signs that advertise higher pay and sign-on bonuses.

The latest bill to raise the state minimum, proposed in April, would push the rate to $12 per hour initially, then gradually to $15 by 2027.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers, owner of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

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