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I violated Pa. election law — and I’m not ashamed | Michael Smerconish

I'd welcome being a test case to force the state legislature to fix our suppressive laws.

A voter steps from the voting booth after casting his ballot in Doylestown, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
A voter steps from the voting booth after casting his ballot in Doylestown, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.Read moreMATT ROURKE / AP

I have a confession.  I violated Pennsylvania election law – a ridiculous standard that actually encouraged me to vote twice!  As you evaluate my transgression, consider that voting for me is sacrosanct.  Since turning 18 in the spring of 1980, I've never missed an election for which I have been eligible to vote.

This year, I was scheduled to participate in radio and television coverage of the midterms from Washington, D.C., and so I applied for an absentee ballot. Pennsylvania's absentee process is notoriously restrictive. Unless you are unable to vote in person due to sickness, a disability, or religious observance, individuals must be absent from their municipality on Election Day in order to file an absentee ballot. Even Philly's firefighters and EMTs can't vote absentee because they are often working round the clock in the same municipality in which they reside.  The plain language on the Absentee Ballot Application says:


"I declare that I am eligible to vote absentee at the forthcoming primary or election since I expect that my duties, occupation or business will require me to be absent from the municipality of my residence on the day of the primary or election for the reason stated below; and that all of the information which I have listed on this absentee ballot application is true and correct."

The applicant is then directed to insert the reason for absence.  At the bottom of the form, emblazoned in red, it says:


I filled out the application truthfully, received my absentee ballot, and returned it within the appropriate time frame.  As planned, I was in Washington on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. I returned to Philadelphia by train on Tuesday afternoon, arriving before the polls closed at 8 p.m.

But I did not visit my polling place to vote again. And by doing that, I violated the edict on the Absentee Ballot Application.

It's anachronistic that Pennsylvania does not have early voting, and onerous to expect someone who'd already voted to show up at a polling place and do it again.  Instead of welcoming participation, we stifle it with closed primaries, no early voting, and absentee voting only for cause. It's time for Pennsylvania to do better, perhaps by emulating Oregon.

The Beaver State made the switch to mail-in balloting in 1998, a practice that was followed by Washington and Colorado, which takes the hassle and stress out of a process that is meant to be simple and thoughtful. (Oregon also became the first to enact automatic voter registration three years ago.)  Thirty-seven states, including those that have mail-in balloting, now enable voting before the actual Election Day.  And the number of those who vote early has grown exponentially as a result.

Michael McDonald is an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who studies early voting. He told me that there is historical precedent for early voting.

"We had early voting at the founding of this country.  We used to allow people several days to vote because it was hard for those in the rural areas to travel to courthouses which is where people had to vote back then.  And so you would have three or four days of voting in an election and then in 1845, due to concerns about vote fraud, there was concerns that people were going from one state to another and voting more than once, and we changed to have one single day through the election day," he said.

"Gradually the states started adopting excuse-required absentee voting laws, particularly after the secret ballot was put into effect, so that you could have this sort of voting with the government overseeing it.  Then, in the 1980s and '90s states started adopting mail balloting, and in the '90s states started adopting in-person early voting numbers and gradually over time we've seen more and more states adopt some form of early voting.  And even in the states that have excuse-required voting, some of those excuses are really lenient, so there, it looks a lot like early voting in other states, even if we might call it absentee voting."

Should anyone raise a fuss with me, I'll be represented by Adam Bonin, the Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in political-law compliance for candidates, businesses, and other entities. I'd welcome mine being a test case to force the state legislature to fix our suppressive laws. Bonin agrees.

"One of my hopes for the new legislature is that Pennsylvania start catching up to other states in expanding voter options. Whether it's in-person early voting or vote-by mail for everyone, there's no reason to limit most voters to 13 hours on one Tuesday," he told me.

On Election Day morning, I watched live coverage of voters standing in line to vote in Bucks County.  The weather was rainy in part of the state.  When I tweeted that the lines and weather were yet another reminder of why Pennsylvania needs to change its rules, I was pleased to receive a retweet from Eugene DePasquale, the state's auditor general, who formerly represented York in the state legislature: "I introduced it legislatively in 2009.  Needs to happen."

Amen. In the meantime, I might call him in my defense.