Pa. Senate votes to end drop boxes, outside money for elections

Drop boxes for depositing mail-in and absentee ballots would be banned and donations to run elections would no longer be permitted from groups outside government under bills approved Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Senate.

Senators voted 37-12, a potentially veto-proof margin, to prohibit the types of grants issued during the 2020 election. The vote against drop boxes was on party lines, 29-20. The bills were sent to the House, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's spokeswoman said he opposes both measures.

Republican opponents of drop boxes said they were not expressly authorized under the 2019 law that expanded mail-in voting for use by anyone, replacing a law that had limited them to people who could claim one of a limited number of excuses.

"Drop boxes are breeding grounds for suspicious activity," said Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster. "They were never authorized by this legislative body but were instead created by the courts."

But Democrats argued the state Supreme Court was properly interpreting the law when justices gave their blessing to drop boxes in September 2020, two months before the presidential election in which Pennsylvania voters narrowly tipped the result in favor of Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

The Legislature's own review found that drop boxes functioned properly and were secure, said Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks.

"It worked in 2020 in one of the most heavy turnout elections in the history of the United States and in the history of Pennsylvania," Santarsiero said. "So this is a bill, as we’ve seen from time to time in this General Assembly, that seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist."

Republican opposition to drop boxes has been fueled by Trump's continued claims he lost unfairly, and by evidence that the unmonitored receptacles were sometimes used to deposit more ballots that just the voter's own.

"It is not legal for any voter to drop off more than one ballot," said Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill. "It might be convenient, it might be, ‘Oh, I was on the way to the supermarket.’ But it is not legal."

Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, said it was nonsensical to think family members should not carry each other's ballots to a drop box.

"Has common sense really gone out the window in this building?" Boscola asked her colleagues.

Wolf press secretary Beth Rementer said the governor would "welcome a conversation with Republican leaders about funding an educational campaign about these requirements" that voters not drop off others' ballots.

The bill would require mail-in ballots that do not go through the mail be dropped off in person at a single central county elections office. It also would stop the counties from having more than one election office. Philadelphia has multiple elections offices.

Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, called it "an attempt to eliminate access to voting by creating lines, by creating barriers to entry, barriers to access, and it would have a disproportionate impact on counties with larger population."

Republican leaders said the state constitution places decisions about the time, place and manner of elections in the hands of the Legislature.

"The people's house had no say — that's wrong," said President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre. "And I know most people back home don't care if the Senate had its say. I do."

Eight Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the bill to prevent outside groups from helping counties pay the cost to administer elections.

The proposal would make it a felony to pay election costs outside federal, state and local revenues from public money, or to seek grants or donations from outside groups.

Rementer said counties need more money to run elections, calling it hypocritical to ignore those demands while cutting off access to alternative funding. She said the money was used to purchase equipment to process mail-in ballots and protective equipment for elections workers.