A measure that would expand the access that partisan poll watchers have at election precincts was approved by a state House panel on Wednesday, with backers saying the measure would foster more trust in the state’s elections and improve transparency.
The proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the state’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, would allow candidates to place up to three poll watchers in a particular precinct, and remove a restriction that requires poll watchers to stay in the counties they live in.
Under the legislation, poll watchers would be given free rein to observe elections in all parts of the state, regardless of where they reside. Supporters of the legislation say the measure would help make elections more transparent, improving public trust.
Members of the House State Government Committee voted 14-10 to approve the measure, Senate Bill 573. State Rep. Seth Grove, the chair of the committee, said poll watchers serve as “checks and balances” on the state’s election system. “Giving candidates more access, whether in the primary or the general election, is a good thing,” Grove said. “Again, poll watchers are the checks and balances within an election system.”
All 10 Democrats on the committee voted against the bill, fearing that it could perpetuate voter intimidation in counties across the state since poll watchers would have the ability to observe elections in any county. “What is really happening around bills like this is we’re intimidating enough poll workers that they’re not going to be there,” said state Rep. Scott Conklin, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “I think this is an atrocity of the bill, because I think that the democracy of the United States of America is more trustworthy than this leads on.”
Grove, however, noted that the bill increases penalties for poll watchers who violate state election law, which he said would discourage poll watchers from intimidating poll workers.
According to the bill text, penalties for voter intimidation would also be increased from a second-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor, with fines of up to $10,000 if a person is convicted. Those convicted could also face up to three years of imprisonment, according to the bill. The bill would also step up penalties for those that impede poll workers from administering elections – which is punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to two years of jail time.
But while Democrats alleged that the bill would lead to intimidation, Republicans on the House State Government Committee underscored their belief that providing more flexibility to poll watchers will help reinstill confidence in the state’s elections.
“There’s a great deal of suspicion and cynicism with regard to our election system. Some of that is well-placed, some of it I believe is misplaced. But either way, the greatest antidote to that is clarity and daylight,” said state Rep. Paul Schemel, a Franklin County Republican who voted for the bill.
The committee also approved legislation Wednesday that would move up the date of Pennsylvania’s presidential primary to the third Tuesday of March. The bill received support from all of the panel’s Republicans, as well as two Democrats. That bill, Senate Bill 428, is designed to give Pennsylvania a larger role in selecting the presidential nominees of both political parties moving forward, with Grove noting that its current April date ensures that “Pennsylvania’s primary really doesn’t matter in the scheme of national politics.” Both bills now await a vote by the full state House of Representatives.