PA compromises its way to a new election code

Posted 11/6/19

HARRISBURG, PA — Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law the most significant update to the commonwealth’s election code since it was first enacted in 1937.

With the 2020 presidential …

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PA compromises its way to a new election code

Posted

HARRISBURG, PA — Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law the most significant update to the commonwealth’s election code since it was first enacted in 1937.

With the 2020 presidential election just a year away, such a change, which could affect voter turnout in PA—identified by political scientists as one of the most vital swing states in the country—could have effects felt nationwide.

Over the past 80 years, as most states made advances to make registration and voting simpler processes, Pennsylvania lagged behind. The update, Act 77, is PA lawmakers’ attempt to catch up.

Several deadlines will be pushed up in the 2020 election: The voter registration deadline will be moved from 30 to 15 days before an election, and absentee voters will be able to submit ballots up until the morning of an election, no longer the prior Friday.

Act 77 also makes it easier for residents to vote from home. A new mail-in voting option will be available to everybody, no explanation necessary on behalf of voters. In prior elections, Pennsylvanians had to meet specific requirements to be eligible for an absentee ballot.

The legislation also allocates $90 million in state aid to help counties throughout the commonwealth replace their voting machines.

Despite getting put on the fast track through the PA General Assembly, the updated election code came with its share of closed-door politicking and compromise. One of the primary concessions for Democrats—and a win for Republicans—is removing the straight-ticket voting option. Straight-ticket options allow voters to check a box and automatically cast a vote for either every Democrat, Republican or Independent on the ballot. Most states have done away with this option.

“We are one of only seven states that still permit the practice of straight ticket voting outright,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Boscola, the Senate bill’s sponsor, in December 2018. “The number of states that offer the option continues to be in steady decline across the country and Pennsylvania should not be last.”

Many Democratic and progressive activists have concerns about how the move will affect its party’s voter turnout. Some argue that it will cause congestion at polling places, especially those in urban areas, and reduce the party’s number of black voters. According to an article from The Intercept, House Democrats have found through internal analysis that removing the straight-ticket option negatively impacts the party. A minority of Republicans also opposed removing the option because of its potential to dissuade older residents from coming to the polls.

Republicans had already attempted to remove the straight-ticket option earlier this year, but were blocked by a veto from Wolf. Sweetening the deal with progressive reforms, like more lenient registration times and mail-in voting, made removing the straight-ticket option easier for Wolf to stomach. Some progressive activist groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have championed Act 77, saying that the positive reforms outweigh the negative impact of removing straight-ticket voting.
With Wolf’s signature on the bill, time will tell how the updated election code will affect voter turnout in PA, and the overall race for the White House in 2020.

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