HARRISBURG - On the same day a judge cleared the way for the state's new voter identification law to take effect, the Corbett administration abandoned plans to allow voters to apply online for absentee ballots for the November election and to register online to vote.
A spokesman for the Department of State said county elections officials told the agency that implementing the new online initiatives as well as voter ID requirements was too much to handle less than three months before the election.
But Stephanie Singer, the top elections official in Philadelphia, said she was unaware that there was an issue with setting up a system to allow voters to register and apply for absentee ballots online, and said shifting more activity online would actually make for less paperwork.
State election law allows absentee voting by any individuals who cannot physically get to polls, are sick or disabled or out of town, but they have to submit proof.
In his decision, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. noted that the law already allows for absentee ballots for those facing difficulty in getting to the polls. In referring to two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, he noted that "absentee balloting is probably available to them."
Also Thursday, as expected, lawyers representing plaintiffs in the voter ID case filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking an expedited hearing. They are seeking an injunction to halt the implementation of photo ID requirements for voters this November.
Simpson on Wednesday denied that request on grounds that meeting the requirements of the ID law was not overly burdensome for voters.
Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said her group was asking the Supreme Court to consider a schedule under which briefs would be filed by the end of the month and oral arguments heard when the court convenes in Philadelphia on Sept. 10.
"One of the key issues that we plan to address is the standard of reviewing a statute, like this one, that burdens the right to vote enshrined in the Pennsylvania constitution," Clarke said. "The Commonwealth Court applied a very deferential standard, while we will show that when the right to vote is burdened, a very high standard should be applied."
In an e-mail obtained by The Inquirer and sent to county elections officials on Wednesday, Department of State Commissioner Jonathan Marks said the agency dropped plans to move forward with online registration and absentee-ballot applications because the counties were concerned about making additional changes so soon before the election.
"Paper voter registrations and paper applications for absentee ballots have been used by election offices in all 67 counties for years," Marks said in the e-mail. "Voters and election workers are familiar and comfortable with both. We are confident that this system will continue to work well."
Singer, chairwoman of the City Commissioners, said no one spoke to her about the issue and she said she was unsure whether implementing the online system would have created more work.
"It's a shame," Singer said of the Department of State's decision. "These are the kinds of reforms that help us do our jobs better. Less time on paperwork means more time training election officials and following up on issues that arise."
Moreover, she said, the state is spending millions on voter ID while postponing projects that some believe do more to preserve the integrity of elections than voter ID.
Online voter registration has cut printing and labor costs and streamlined elections operations in 10 states that have implemented it since 1998, said David Becker, director of election initiatives for the Pew Center on the States.
"It's one of those rare win-win trends," Becker said. "It's nonideological, incredibly efficient, and enhances voter integrity because names can be checked instantly against motor-vehicle records."
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster) tried to advance a bill last spring that would have directed the Department of State to set up an online voter-registration system statewide before Election Day, but it failed to move out of committee.
Clarke said she was surprised to learn that the state was putting off the online initiative given that Simpson in his ruling relied on those kinds of provisions - absentee balloting specifically - to ensure everyone eligible to vote could do so in November.
"It's troublesome," she said. "They were supposed to do some things to make it easier to vote and now one has been taken off the table."