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Voting changes in Pennsylvania

Posted 10/2/19

There are a few changes coming to voting in Pennsylvania that may help make it easier for state residents to vote. For instance, for the first time ever, absentee voters may apply for a ballot …

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Voting changes in Pennsylvania

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There are a few changes coming to voting in Pennsylvania that may help make it easier for state residents to vote. For instance, for the first time ever, absentee voters may apply for a ballot online.

Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced that since the online application became available, 4,300 voters used it to apply for an absentee ballot. Once a voter receives an application—those without internet can apply at their county’s elections bureau—he or she fills it out and returns it to his or her county’s elections bureau and receives a ballot through the mail. That ballot must then be filled out and hand-delivered or mailed to the local county board of elections.

“The success of letting people apply online for an absentee ballot proves that Pennsylvanians want voting to be more accessible,” said Gov. Wolf. “This was an important next step to modernize our elections, and I hope it encourages more voters to participate in our democracy.”

The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, October 29 of this year, one week before the election. The deadline for county election offices to receive absentee ballots is just three days later, on the Friday before the election.
In August 2015, Gov. Wolf launched online voter registration. That resulted in more than 1.4 million applications for new or renewed voter registrations.

Other important changes to the state voting system are being pursued by state legislators, but have not yet been embraced by enough legislators to become law. One such advance would be a move to open primaries, which would allow voters not aligned with a party to vote in Democratic or Republican primaries.
A priority for the commonwealth’s fall agenda should be passing Senate Bill 300. This proposal would enable Pennsylvania’s unaffiliated, independent voters to have a voice in casting votes in either the Republican or Democrat ballot on Primary Election Day.

The idea of open primaries is one issue among numerous other election-reform measures, including redistricting reform and modernizing the absentee voting process, which will be debated this legislative session. We urge lawmakers in both parties to dust off Pennsylvania’s archaic Election Code, last updated in 1936, and consider primary reform as critical for the state’s voters and political process.

The fastest-growing group of voters in the state are not affiliated with any political party and, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, those people now number nearly 800,000—that’s a 75 percent climb over the past eight years.

Only nine out of the 50 states continue with closed primaries where only registered Democrats and Republicans can participate. A bill that would have allowed open primary voting passed the Senate in June by a margin of 42 to eight. So far it has not been taken up by the House, but that may happen in this session.

But by far the most widely anticipated change in voting in the state is to change the way state and federal districts are drawn. Pennsylvania is unique in that, after the federal census, the two Democratic and two Republican leaders in the state, along with a fifth person often chosen by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court (PSSC), decide on the new districts. After the census in 2010, Republicans dominated the PSSC, which lead to a lopsided redistricting process whereby Republicans took 13 of the state’s 18 Congressional districts even though there are slightly more registered Democratic voters in the state than Republicans.

Since then, the Democrats took over the PSSC and, sparked by a lawsuit brought by the PA League of Women Voters, the high court declared the district boundaries run afoul of the state constitution. Republicans tried to get the matter overturned in federal court, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved and the ruling stood. The result was that the congressional districts were re-drawn and, likely as a result, heavily Republican Wayne County now has a Democratic Congressman rather than a Republican one.

This process, however, did not change the shapes of the state Senate and House districts, which remained the same as before, and has thus far given a huge advantage to the Republican Party in maintaining control of the state Senate and House in Harrisburg.

Gov. Wolf appointed a commission to look at redistricting options preferred by the residents of the state. A month ago, the commission recommended that redistricting options be drawn up by an appointed panel rather than lawmakers.

Republicans in the state legislature may not agree to this change, but it would seem to be in their interest to agree to some changes, because the next census is in 2020, and the districts will again be re-drawn shortly after that. It is almost certain that the PSSC will retain a Democratic majority when the time comes, and if Republicans don’t agree to some changes, Democrats, with support from the court, could turn the tables on them and draw districts that are clearly unfair to the other side.
We want what the voters repeatedly say they want: a redistricting system where the voters chose the politicians instead of the politicians choosing the voters.

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