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Pa.’s restrictive election laws make it hard for Philly firefighters and EMS workers to vote

Hundreds of Philly firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs can't vote each Election Day because they work all-day shifts and aren't eligible for absentee ballots, illustrating the restrictive nature of Pennsylvania's election system.

A Philadelphia Fire Department truck
A Philadelphia Fire Department truckRead morePhiladelphia Fire Department

Thomas Scheuerman wants to vote Tuesday. He'd really, really like to cast a ballot.

To do so, he's planning on having a colleague cover part of his shift while Scheuerman votes at 7 a.m., right when the polls open, before rushing to work.

"If he says no … I'm kind of stuck," Scheuerman said. "If there's a situation and someone says no — has child-care issues or something — I'm stuck, I won't vote this year."

Scheuerman, 29, is an emergency medical technician with the Philadelphia Fire Department, driving an ambulance around the city in response to 911 calls. He's not exactly free to take a break to vote in the middle of a 12-hour shift, and he lives across the city from where he's stationed.

Scheuerman and most of his 500 or so fellow first responders working Election Day in the city also aren't eligible for absentee ballots, which are limited to very specific circumstances by Pennsylvania law; early in-person voting is not allowed in the state.

"We're not allowed to vote, basically," said Jack Eltman, a 15-year firefighter with the Fire Department and a union official who lived in Northeast Philadelphia before recently moving outside the city.

The plight of Philly's first responders, experts said, demonstrates how restrictive election laws create barriers to voting. While other states have expanded their voting options over the last two decades, Pennsylvania's election laws have remained largely trapped in amber.

Pennsylvania law does allow absentee voting for those working on Election Day — if they'll be outside the town where they live. But Philly's firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs are required to live in the city for their first years on the job, and a spokesperson for the union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, said the majority of members remain in Philadelphia after the residency requirement expires.

"This completely disenfranchises them," said Robin Kolodny, a Temple University political science professor, when told of the situation. "People should be outraged by that. It's completely inappropriate."

How people vote in Pennsylvania: In person, on Election Day

In contrast to Pennsylvania, a movement over the last decade or two to open up the voting process has expanded access in other states

Today, 37 states allow early voting and 27 states — including New Jersey — allow absentee voting without needing to state a reason. (Washington, D.C. allows both.)

As those reforms have been implemented, the number of votes cast in some way other than in person on Election Day has continued to rise; in the 2016 presidential election, 16 states had a majority of votes cast early or by mail.

Pennsylvania has no early voting and is explicit about the circumstances that allow absentee voting. Absentee ballots are for people who will "be absent from the municipality of their residence, because their duties, occupation or business require them to be elsewhere," or are unable to vote in person because of illness, physical disability, or religious holiday.

So while two in five votes cast nationwide in 2016 were by some method other than the polls on Election Day, that number was just 5 percent in Pennsylvania.

The struggle for Philly’s firefighters and EMS workers

First responders in Philly are scheduled to work 12-hour shifts, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or vice versa, though in practice that differs. That means they have to either get to the polls when they open at 7, or rush there just before they close if they get out of work before 8 p.m.

If they have long commutes across the city, or traffic is bad that day, or they wake up late, too bad. If they receive last-minute calls — emergencies don't follow a set schedule — and get out late, too bad.

And with absentee voting off the table for Philly's firefighters and EMS workers who live in the city, it all comes down to the in-person vote.

There's no guarantee about that, either.

"You've got somebody who lives in the Northeast section of the city, works in the Southwest section of the city, there's absolutely zero chance that person's going to be able to vote before or after their shift. And they're unable to fill out an absentee ballot," Eltman said.

Multiple members of the Fire Department described individual arrangements they have to make, similar to what Scheuerman hopes to do Tuesday. It's all about working things out with colleagues, trying to cover an hour or two of your shift.

"It's not an official solution, it's not a systemic solution," said Noah Turkewitz, 31, an EMT who lives in Fairmount and works in South Philly.

Turkewitz managed to make it just in time to vote in person after his day shift in 2016, he said, "only because I happened to get off on time. … It was really a toss-up whether I was going to be able to vote."

Why it’ll be years before the absentee ballot requirements can be fixed

Firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs aren't the only people who face barriers to voting, of course. They happen to be in a uniquely difficult situation, but there are others who work long hours — nurses, say — or multiple jobs and just can't vote on Election Day.

That's one reason, along with potential cost savings, that early voting and no-excuse absentee voting have become popular in other states.

But it's hard, in polarized Pennsylvania, to get lawmakers to open up the election code. Each side worries that the other will take advantage.

And there's an additional wrench: The language allowing absentee voting for people who work outside the municipality where they live is written into the state constitution.

It's a multi-year process to amend the constitution. But it ought to be done and in a bipartisan fashion, said State Rep. Martina White, a Republican who represents Northeast Philadelphia, where many firefighters live. She said her office wants to take on the issue in the next legislative session.

"There is an opportunity for us to help [first responders] and give them what every other citizen gets to do, and be able to vote," White said.

Scheurman said he hopes the system will get fixed.

"I work Christmas, I work Thanksgiving. I work holidays, nights, weekends," Scheuerman said, and that's OK because "that's the job I've chosen, that's the job I love."

He is more than willing to make sacrifices, but "I don't think voting should be one of them."