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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and Republicans who control the state legislature have reached a deal on a major package of election reforms just in time for the 2020 presidential election
The measure, which must still pass the state House and Senate before it lands on Wolf’s desk, would bring one of the most antiquated voting systems into line with procedures adopted decades ago by many other states.
“These are really good reforms, and they will bring us more in line with 20th century voting. Not even the 21st century. It’s a step in the right direction,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D), the bill’s lead author. “We haven’t had any changes to our voting laws, our election laws, in decades.”
The bill would allow any eligible voter to receive an absentee ballot without needing an excuse. Pennsylvania is one of 19 states that still requires voters to offer a reason why they cannot be present at the polls on Election Day.
Voters would also be able to opt to receive absentee ballots on an ongoing basis. Six states and the District of Columbia allow all voters to put themselves on permanent absentee ballot lists, and another eleven states allow those with disabilities or those over the age of 65 to receive their ballots in the mail.
Those provisions would help address significant problems with Pennsylvania’s current absentee ballot program, said Max Feldman, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. Pennsylvania ranks near the top of the list of states where absentee ballots are thrown out because they are not submitted on time, several days before Election Day.
“Voters are really looking for more convenience, they’re looking for ways to make it easier to vote, and Pennsylvania has been behind the times in terms of modernizing its system,” Feldman said.
The changes are taking place in time to be implemented for the 2020 presidential contest, when Pennsylvania is likely to be at the center of President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE’s reelection strategy. Trump became the first Republican since George H.W. Bush to carry Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in 2016, when he won the Keystone State by about 44,000 votes, or seven-tenths of a percentage point.
Before next year’s elections, new voters would also be allowed to register to vote up until 15 days before an election. Under existing law, Pennsylvania is one of 16 states that requires voters to register a month before Election Day. The change would put Pennsylvania among six states that allow voters to register within 2 1/2 weeks of Election Day, though it would not join the 19 states that allow same-day voter registration.
In a concession to Republicans, Wolf agreed to end straight-ticket voting, a practice that Democrats generally believe benefits their voters. Eliminating straight-ticket voting had been at the core of the measure Wolf vetoed initially. Boscola, the bill’s author, said some Democrats continued to object to the provision.
But Wolf agreed to allow the provision in the compromise in exchange for $90 million in state funding for new voting machines. Wolf had ordered counties to replace voting machines last year with new devices that create paper receipts. County officials told the state the upgrades would cost about $150 million.
“Gov. Wolf believes [the bill] is a compromise and reasonable step forward towards improving our antiquated voting laws,” a Wolf spokesman said in an email. “He will continue to monitor the progress of the bill.”
“Maybe this paves the way down the line to future reforms that I’d love to see,” Boscola added.
Nine other states still allow voters to vote a straight ticket, though several states have ended the practice in recent years. In the last decade, Iowa, Indiana, Rhode Island, West Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin ended straight-ticket voting; all but Rhode Island are controlled by Republicans. Texas lawmakers voted to end straight-ticket voting beginning in the 2020 election.
A federal court in 2016 blocked a Michigan law ending straight-ticket voting after finding it would disproportionately affect African American voters. In 2018, Michigan voters amended the state constitution to allow straight-ticket voting.
Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah still allow straight-ticket voting. Indiana allows straight-ticket ballots in some races, but not all.
Pennsylvania’s archaic election laws are something of a pattern in eastern states where entrenched incumbents tend to run state legislatures, Feldman said.
“The reality that I see in a bunch of states is that safe incumbents often grow comfortable with the voting systems they have. Making changes to that system can be difficult because politicians can see changes to the voting system that got them elected as unnecessary risks,” he said.
The measure likely to pass the legislature will not put Pennsylvania at the vanguard of progressive election reforms, Feldman said, “but it is making important upgrades to the system that will help voters.”