Two weeks ago, area voters chose a new mayor for Philadelphia, picked a district attorney in a hard-fought race in Montgomery County, and elected three justices who will sit on our state's Supreme Court. Unfortunately, fewer than 25 percent of registered voters across the state actually cast ballots, according to preliminary figures from the Department of State. That means just a quarter of registered Pennsylvanians made important decisions about our schools, our systems of justice, and our lives that will affect all for years to come.
Pennsylvania consistently trails other states in voter turnout and participation. In 2012, the Keystone state ranked 29th in participation. With the 2016 election fast approaching, what can we do to encourage participation in the voting process?
The commonwealth's voting system is strong in many ways, but it does not reflect how people live today. It's time to bring our election system into the 21st century.
Tuesday, our organizations will join with other leading nonpartisan voting advocates, election experts, and community organizations from across Pennsylvania to launch a new coalition to educate the public and our representatives in Harrisburg about commonsense updates to our election system that have been tested and proved in many other states. Updating our election system will make it easier and more convenient for Pennsylvanians to vote and ensure all citizens have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard.
For many Pennsylvanians, particularly working people and caregivers, making it to the polls on Election Day can be a challenge. This is especially true for those who work long hours and double shifts, like doctors, nurses, and first responders. To ease these challenges, 33 states allow voters to cast their ballots during an early voting period before Election Day, which often includes opportunities to vote at night and on weekends. Twenty-seven states give voters the option to submit absentee ballots by mail without providing an excuse and three others send mail-in ballots to all voters. These are just two example of the type of proven updates Pennsylvania should adopt. All voters, even those that never miss an election, would welcome more flexibility and choice in deciding when and how to cast a vote.
For some voters, the current system erects needless barriers to voting. For example, if you move, current law requires you to reregister at your new address at least 30 days before the next election. But amid the stress of moving, many miss this deadline and can't vote, even if they are moving within the same town or city. Same-day registration would allow both new voters and those who need to update their registrations the chance to do so on Election Day. Fourteen states offer this convenience, and it has proved effective at increasing turnout. In 2012, four of the five states with the highest levels of participation offered same-day registration.
Seniors and disabled Pennsylvanians face additional barriers. Currently, voters with long-term mobility issues must slice through a snarl of red tape in order to receive permanent absentee status, including getting a special certificate from their physician. Other seniors and people with disabilities may need assistance and transportation from family, friends, or caregivers to vote. If they can't find help getting to the polls on Election Day, they may not be able to cast a vote. More choice and flexibility would ensure that all Pennsylvanians have an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.
Because they've been implemented in states across the country, we know that these improvements work, won't be too costly, and will preserve the integrity of our elections. We also know they've received broad bipartisan support and have been introduced in states led by both Democrats and Republicans. Really, they're common sense.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of State added a new online voter registration option to its website. This simple update allowed more than 30,000 people to register securely online with just a few clicks, and there are plans to expand the system. It has received loud and sustained praise from Republicans and Democrats alike and proved there is broad support for updating our election system.
In an era of partisanship in Harrisburg, implementing these straightforward updates to our election system would provide an important opportunity for legislators to show their constituents that they can work together to get things done. We hope that in the next few months we can find legislators willing to work together to modernize and improve the state's election system so that next November, more Pennsylvanians will vote and participate in the democracy that generations of Americans fought to protect.
Karen C. Buck is executive director of SeniorLAW Center. firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer R. Clarke is executive director of the Public Interest Law Center. email@example.com.