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Report: Pa. gets mixed reviews on voter access, registration

Registering to vote online in Pennsylvania is a no-go. Access to absentee ballots is limited, and if you have trouble speaking or reading English and need assistance voting, the help you need might be tough to find.

Registering to vote online in Pennsylvania is a no-go. Access to absentee ballots is limited, and if you have trouble speaking or reading English and need assistance voting, the help you need might be tough to find.

The state received a mixed report card in a national study released Tuesday on best practices at the polls in 10 swing states.

The study by Common Cause, a Washington-based good-government nonprofit, rated the state positively on training for poll workers, accommodating disabled voters, and recordkeeping. But Pennsylvania also received poor marks in some key areas. High on the list of problems were the lack of online voting registration, the state's requirement that voters must have a reason to request an absentee ballot, and the lack of early voting.

"Pennsylvania does lag behind most of the states in modernizing its election system," said Barry Kauffman, Common Cause's Pennsylvania executive director.

The state is moving in the right direction, he said. Online-voter registration, early voting, no-fault absentee ballots, and allowing Election Day registration are all gaining support, Kauffman said.

The study evaluated states' progress in implementing 19 recommendations made in January by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. Also evaluated in the study were Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina.

Of the 19 recommendations, Pennsylvania was scored "satisfactory" on six, "mixed" on six, and "unsatisfactory" on six. One recommendation was not applicable.

The satisfactory ratings included the state's integration of voting registration with the motor-vehicle agency, use of schools as polling places, recruiting to expand polling station volunteers, training, and two issues related to easy site access to polling stations.

The state received unsatisfactory grades on online voting, early voting, interstate exchange of voter information, a failure to establish voting centers where people can vote outside their precinct, access for people who are not strong English speakers and clear language used in voting material.

Without legislation, the state has limited ability to implement some of those 19 recommendations, said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State. Mandating change is further complicated by the autonomy counties have in establishing voting procedures and other changes. The advantage of local control is the ability to address a community's specific needs, Ruman said.

The state did not implement any changes directly as a result of the presidential commission's findings, issued in January, he said.

Numerous national organizations, including the ACLU and the Advancement Project, a national organization for improving voting access for minorities, said the Common Cause report was effective in highlighting ongoing obstacles in the state.

"I think that the state has a bully pulpit, and they could be out in front of a lot of these issues," said Marian Schneider, senior attorney with the Advancement Project.