To overturn Act 77, Pennsylvania Republicans say they have no choice but to embrace it.
Three and a half years after the elections overhaul became law, it continues to be a central animating force in GOP politics, one that consumes precious time and energy in the party’s efforts to strategize, but also one that still foments resentments in the factional rifts between grassroots versus “the establishment.”
Wrestling with a disappointing showing in the 2022 midterm elections, the Pennsylvania Republican Party convened in Hershey over the weekend to debate these and other strategic changes with hopes of righting the ship in time for the 2023 elections for school boards, county commissioners, and judgeships.
The party’s resolution committee adopted only two measures. The first says the party will encourage more of its members to avail themselves of the mail-in voting Act 77 created in order to be more competitive. The second measure affirms the party will try to undo the law when it has the necessary levers of power in state government — circumstances that couldn’t even possibly materialize for another four years.
“The lesson from the 2022 election is that never again can we allow the Democrats to spend 50 days banking their votes while we endeavor to bank all of ours on a single day,” Chairman Lawrence Tabas told attendees on Saturday.
Exactly how deep the support was for the two measures is hard to quantify because both were passed on a voice vote, but sources told Broad + Liberty the opposition to each measure was scant.
Act 77 became law in the era of “no excuse absentee voting,” which seemed innocuous to some Republican lawmakers who supported the law in 2019, only to see the technique become de facto voting-by-mail in 2020 with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In last year’s gubernatorial election, Democrat Josh Shapiro received slightly more than a million of his votes by mail, out of his total three million vote total, according to state election returns. Republican Doug Mastriano, by contrast, received only 187,000 mail-in votes out of his 2.2 million vote total — or about eight percent.
Those same percentages held in the U.S. Senate race, even though Republican candidate Mehmet Oz ran a much closer race against Democrat John Fetterman, losing 51-46, whereas Mastriano lost to Shapiro 56-41.
Much of the animosity towards mail-in voting came from the top of the party, as President Trump disparaged the practice repeatedly in the runup to the 2020 presidential vote.
When the General Assembly passed Act 77 in 2019, GOP lawmakers were making legislative compromises in their quest to eliminate straight-party voting, apparently at the direction of the Trump administration and the Republican National Committee.
“In the communications that were taking place between our leadership and the White House and the RNC, the brass ring for them, in their opinion, was getting straight-party voting eliminated,” Republican Rep. Jim Gregory (Blair County) said about the law after its use was radically expanded in 2020.
“In states that had, had it previously and got rid of [straight-ticket voting], you saw an opportunity for President Trump to be re-elected by a range of four to eight percent. They did not concern themselves with mail-in balloting, and they were fine with that, in the communications that I’ve been told,” Gregory added.
One source familiar with a presentation on mail-in voting given at the Hershey conference described the strategy as underwhelming and lacking breadth. That source requested and was granted anonymity by Broad + Liberty because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the closed meeting.
In counter to that notion, a representative with the state party said the presentation was a small overview that was not intended to be comprehensive of the party’s final strategy, and that a task force is still in the process of crafting that strategy.
Several other resolutions from the weekend were shelved, thus either dooming or delaying their implementation, such as one recommending the party issue endorsements in every race. In the case of the “always endorse” resolution, that idea was tabled because the change would require a change to the party bylaws.
Endorsements were a contentious issue in the 2022 races, as the party declined to make endorsements before the primary in both the gubernatorial and Senate races, with both contests hosting wide fields of candidates.
Another resolution sought to censure those Republican House members who voted for Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, to become speaker with the new General Assembly that was sworn in last month. That resolution was tabled. Rozzi pledged to become unaffiliated if he were elected speaker — a pledge that has become the focus of political maneuverings and recriminations in the wake of his taking the gavel.
Rozzi’s tenure as speaker was destined to be short given that Democrats were expected to win two special elections which would swing the narrow one-seat majority back to their party. Republicans who voted for Rozzi appear to have been trying to delay a speakership by Rep. Joanna McClinton (D – Philadelphia/Delaware), who is seen as far more partisan than Rozzi.
Signals that Republicans would adapt but also remain hostile to Act 77 had been flashing for some time.
In a radio interview last month, Mastriano acknowledged the insurmountable disadvantage Republicans would burden themselves with if they refused to get in the vote-by-mail game.
“We probably should have used it as the Democrats had, because I don’t see how we win elections without embracing that idea,” Mastriano said. “And once we get a governor, you know, and a General Assembly that’s Republican, you know, restores to ‘voting day’ instead of ‘voting season.’’
“It offends the Republicans. And I get it. You know, I — it’s icky, but if we wanna win, we’re gonna operate within the law.”
Rank and file Republicans have harbored resentment against the GOP lawmakers who voted for the bill. That anger was sometimes even directed at Mastriano, even though Mastriano claimed to represent more of the “grassroots” than other candidates.
Montgomery County Commissioner and 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Gale, who is estranged from most of the party and its leadership, embodied those frustrations in a 2021 tweet.
“Yes, we need to repeal Act 77, but we also need to repeal and replace every Republican in Harrisburg who voted for it,” Gale tweeted. “So, don’t give Doug ‘Mail-In’ Mastriano a free pass for pretending he’s going to fix the very problem he helped create.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports