Ever since August 2021 when several Republican state representatives launched a lawsuit related to Act 77 and mail-in voting, Republican leadership in the Pennsylvania House has remained largely silent on the matter. More than just staying silent themselves, however, party leadership has also given instructions to at least Rep. Dave Zimmerman (R-99), one of the representatives pursuing the lawsuit, to refrain from drawing attention to Act 77, according to Zimmerman.
The passage of Act 77 in 2019 changed the voting process in Pennsylvania by allowing no-excuse mail-in voting and by allowing voters to vote by mail up to 50 days before an election. Act 77 passed the House 138-61, with Zimmerman voting against the measure.
“I was a ‘no’ because this vote was a major change to the current law,” Zimmerman explained to The Lancaster Patriot in an email. “This added mail-in ballot voting on top of absentee ballot voting that was already in law and it took away straight party voting.”
Pushback from GOP leadership about his stance started with the 2019 vote, Zimmerman said, because “leadership wanted the Republican Caucus to be 100% on board.” Republican leadership was “desperate” to pass the bill and get Gov. Wolf’s signature, rather than waiting to run the bill as a constitutional amendment, which would have required another round of votes in the House and the Senate as well as the time-consuming voter referendum process — all of which would have made the bill irrelevant for the 2020 election. There is a widespread belief, Zimmerman noted, that the motivation behind expediting the passage of Act 77 was to “get rid of Trump.”
According to Zimmerman, the Republicans essentially shot themselves in the foot with Act 77, handing the Democrats “the tool they needed to get ahead of Republicans.” Redistricting contributed to the flip in the state House during the 2022 midterm elections, he said, but the flip truly began with Act 77.
The lawsuit that Zimmerman and 13 other representatives initiated and self-funded to overturn Act 77 has seen tumultuous progression through the courts. Although the case won in the Commonwealth Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed that ruling, and now the case awaits a decision on whether it will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Zimmerman has experienced some political upheaval of his own during this time. Although he still has strong support from the voter base — he won his House seat by an ample margin in November 2022 — he was removed from three legislative committees in May 2022. He explained that he was told by Rep. Bryan Cutler, then the Speaker of the House, that his removal from the committees was due to his lack of public support for state Sen. Ryan Aument during the May primary election. Zimmerman cannot help but wonder if the fact that he has continued to stand against the leadership over Act 77 has something to do with the committee affair as well.
Zimmerman told The Lancaster Patriot that the staff member who drafts Zimmerman’s weekly email to constituents was told by leadership that he is not allowed to say anything about Act 77 in those emails. Further instructions included remaining silent about the act in legislative write-ups and in press comments on legislation, according to Zimmerman.
The Lancaster Patriot reached out to Cutler’s office for comment on the Act 77 issue. The office did not give a statement on the lawsuit and instead directed attention to bills related to aspects of the voting process in the state. “Rep. Cutler can’t comment on pending litigation,” wrote Mike Straub, director of communications for Cutler, in a Dec. 29 email. The reason is not a legal one, but rather office policy. “He is also just swamped right now in work leading up to Swearing-In Day next week.”
Straub noted that one driving force behind the expedited passage of Act 77 in 2019 was to provide funding for all the state’s counties to acquire new voting machines before the 2020 primary, since Gov. Wolf had decertified every voting machine in the state in late 2018.
“However, I would argue it wasn’t ‘rushed’ – discussions and negotiations lasted for several months, if not more than a year before a final proposal was put up for votes,” Straub said. “It encouraged everyone to come to the table and look at election reforms across the board. Which included a huge victory for people over politics – the elimination of straight party ticket voting, along with money for voting machines, and expanded mail in voting options.”
Straub added that the initial bill required “extensive security measures in all methods of absentee voting,” but the state Democratic Party and the courts then removed most of those security measures.
Concerning weekly emails, Straub said that he is “not aware of any directive from Leaders regarding weekly email subject matter.”
Although Zimmerman says he has been encouraged to stay quiet about Act 77, he continues to speak up about the problem and possible solutions. When the U.S. Supreme Court begins considering potential cases on January 6, 2023, justices could decide to take the case.
“Let’s pray the U.S. Supreme Court moves the right direction and makes the correct decision on January 6,” Zimmerman said. “If they side with the people of Pennsylvania, we will be looking at a game changer.”