“Pennsylvania has been in the back of the pack in terms of election modernization for decades. Act 77 is a quick sprint away from that shameful reputation.”
When Pennsylvania voters head to the polls next Tuesday, things will operate pretty much the way they have since 1937. The only real difference will be the names on the ballots.
That’s because Pennsylvania’s election laws haven’t changed all that much in 80 years.
But this general election marks a turning point.
On Oct. 31, Gov. Tom Wolf enacted a measure (Act 77 of 2019) that authorizes some of the most significant updates to Pennsylvania election laws in a generation.
So, when residents next go to vote in 2020, they will cast their ballots on newer, more secure machines that provide a voter-verifiable and auditable paper trail ensuring that every vote that’s cast is counted accurately.
The state, through bipartisan efforts, is providing $90 million to help counties defray the costs of the new machines.
Voters who can’t make it to the polls because of long or untraditional work hours or commitments caring for family members, for example, will have a new option.
They will be able to mail in their vote, a variation of no-excuse absentee ballot voting that is separate from the existing absentee system. This option also ensures voting for people with disabilities, senior citizens and rural voters who can’t get to the polls.
All mailed-in ballots must be returned to the county voting office by 8 p.m. on Election Day. This amendment does away with the restrictive deadline Pennsylvania had in place of 8 p.m. on the Friday before the election.
The new law also helps get more people to the polls in the first place, by reducing the voter registration deadline from 30 to 15 days before an election, when many residents become more interested and engaged in politics.
The more people vote, the better the policy outcomes are for the state as a whole.
Other provisions of the law eliminate straight party ticket voting, prohibit stickers for write-in candidates where paper ballots are used, revise petition rules and more.
To say these changes are significant is an understatement. Pennsylvania has been in the back of the pack in terms of election modernization for decades. Act 77 is a quick sprint away from that shameful reputation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should be commended, along with the Wolf Administration, for the amount of time and effort they put in over the years through hearings and public forums.
Advocacy groups had their say, and they were heard.
But timing is everything, too.
It is difficult to imagine these reforms ever becoming law if the former House State Government Committee chairman, who had a reputation for blocking bills instead of advancing them, kept his post there instead of moving on to another chairmanship.
So it goes. And so goes the 2019 General Election on Nov. 5, the last time Pennsylvanians will vote like it’s 1937 all over again.
Kurt Knaus is Managing Director of Ceisler Media's Harrisburg office.