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Election ‘audits,’ filibuster on lawmakers’ brains

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania’s representatives in Washington split along party lines Thursday as the House passed broad reforms to the nation’s elections.

The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is the latest effort by congressional Democrats to expand voting rights and reinstate parts of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law that aimed to stop race discrimination in elections. It has drawn unanimous support from elected Democrats.

Backers’ hopes were swiftly dashed this week, however, when at least one centrist Democrat in the Senate signaled her refusal to change lawmaking rules so it can pass. In doing so, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. effectvely halted President Joe Biden’s push for sweeping election reform.

Pennsylvania’s House Democrats uniformly backed the election bill Thursday, with the exception of Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, who didn’t vote. The state’s Republicans unanimously opposed the bill.

GOP legislators viciously attacked the bill, which would make Election Day a national holiday and allow same-day voter registration. One group of House Republicans called it a “federal election takeover” and an “attempt to seize control of elections from states.”

The bill passed the House 220-203, setting the stage for a Senate debate. Most Democratic senators support changes to the body’s arcane filibuster rule, which allows even a minority party to effectively stop almost any bill it doesn’t like.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, has expressed support for changes to the filibuster.

“The best thing the Senate can do right now is to alter the Senate rules so that we can pass a voting rights bill because that Freedom to Vote Act can only pass by one pathway,” Casey told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat this week.

A simple majority in the Senate could enable the rules change, clearing the way for the bill’s passage. But Sinema’s opposition casts doubt on any further progress.

“The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said Thursday.

Audit plan weighs on governor race

A state Senate committee is reportedly planning to press on with its controversial 2020 election audit — while the audit’s most prominent supporter draws more attention with a run for governor.

Last week, Republicans involved in the audit said they plan to proceed with hearings this spring, the Tribune-Review reported. Since then, the state Commonwealth Court declined to fully stop a subpoena aimed at uncovering more information for the audit.

The audit aims to investigate the 2020 presidential election, which former president Donald Trump and his most loyal allies claim was rigged against him. Despite expensive searches in states including Arizona, no evidence has emerged to back the accusation.

That hasn’t stopped Pennsylvania lawmakers from pushing their own audit, with a private firm receiving a no-bid contract to carry out the investigation. Democratic legislators have harshly criticized the audit’s supporters for violating voters’ privacy and risking data breaches.

The audit has cast a pall over the 2022 gubernatorial primary, with at least three candidates for the state’s highest office tied in some way to the investigation.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who seeks to succeed Gov. Tom Wolf in this fall’s election, has fought the audit publicly, saying it’s based on a “bogus lie.”

Shapiro has argued that GOP-backed subpoenas in the audit violate their targets’ privacy.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful, has clashed with the audit’s most militant supporters in his own caucus. But in a statement this week, he said lawmakers have the constitutional authority to review the election.

“The people of Pennsylvania deserve a real, honest review of our elections so we can improve our voting system in the future, and this ruling paves the way for a thorough and forthright investigation to move forward as quickly as possible,” he said of the Commonwealth Court ruling.

This month Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Fayetteville, also announced a run for governor. The outspoken Trump supporter is the audit’s most visible backer.

On Jan. 9, the Democratic Governors Association criticized Mastriano in a statement, pointing out his attendance at the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that ended with an attack on the Capitol Building.

“Since busing insurrectionists to the Capitol on January 6th, Mastriano is running on dangerous conspiracy theories, support for a sham election audit, and diehard loyalty to Trump,” the group said.

Bill would start abandoned property list

A state lawmaker is moving to create a statewide database of blighted properties, so local governments can more easily move to remediate them.

In a memo this week, Rep. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster, said he intends to propose a bill to make a Property Maintenance Code Violations Registry — a list of code violations that would make it easier to identify the owners and details of abandoned or dangerous properties.

Without a statewide list, “blighted properties are easy targets for absentee landlords to simply hold the properties for future sale without rectifying the blight,” Sturla said.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers.

He can be reached at

rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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