Oct. 31 was a great day for Pennsylvania voters. Act 77, the bipartisan election reform bill signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf that morning, will make it easier for thousands of Pennsylvanians to access the ballot box by modernizing the Commonwealth’s election system.
One of many welcome changes in this law is shortening the deadline for voter registration from 30 days before Election Day to 15 days. However, some county election officials—Including Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley—expressed concern in an October 29 Inquirer article that they will not be able to implement this change by the time it takes effect next spring, and that citizens who register to vote under the new deadline will thus find their names missing from the pollbooks on Election Day.
Any change to the voter-registration process of course requires adjustment. However, we at the Public Interest Law Center feel that our election officials’ top priority should be making voting easy for as many voters as possible. Moving the registration deadline closer to Election Day, as we have advocated for many years, will go a long way toward that goal.
Needlessly early deadlines for voter registration arbitrarily exclude eligible voters from the polls. One 2015 study in the journal Political Analysis estimated that between 3 million and 4 million more Americans would have registered to vote in 2012 were it not for their states’ registration deadlines. Extending the registration deadline by two weeks will make voting easier for Pennsylvanians. When you make voting easier, more people will vote.
Our old deadline of 30 days tied us for the most restrictive voter registration deadline in the country. With the new deadline of 15 days, Pennsylvania will move to the middle of the pack. We could do even better: 19 states and D.C. allow voters to register and vote on Election Day.
In the October 29 article, Commissioner Deeley estimates that the City Commissioners’ office will need $2 million in additional funding to process registrations under the new deadline. We believe that local election officials should be given the resources they need to implement these changes. And we fully believe they will be capable of doing so, just as election officials in California, Alabama, Iowa and many other states have proved themselves capable of processing voter registrations on deadlines of 15 days or shorter.
This law makes a number of other important changes, including extending the deadline for the receipt of absentee ballots to 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. We are representing nine voters who are suing the state to challenge Pennsylvania’s former absentee ballot deadline—the Friday before Election Day—that was the earliest in the country and prevents thousands of ballots from being counted every election.
Act 77 helps move Pennsylvania’s election system into the 21st century. Even positive changes always present new challenges, but we are confident that Pennsylvania can join dozens of states across the country in providing its citizens with a smoother path to the ballot box.
Ben Geffen is a Staff Attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, where Mimi McKenzie is Legal Director.