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Bring Pa. into 21st century and make it easier to vote

Wolf said he hopes to enlist bipartisan support for three initiatives: no-excuse balloting, online absentee-ballot applications, and extending the time for the return of absentee ballots.

People line up to vote at Dendy Recreation Center in Philadelphia on Election Day 2016.
People line up to vote at Dendy Recreation Center in Philadelphia on Election Day 2016.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff

Tuesday is Election Day and unlike last year, it's not a particularly exciting one. On my Montgomery County ballot there are judicial races, those for school directors, township commissioner, jury commissioner, and tax collector, plus some judicial-retention decisions, and a ballot question on the Homestead Property Tax Assessment.

I've already voted. I did it by absentee ballot. The process was straightforward, but a bit intrusive, and seems designed to limit, not increase, the number of people voting. I didn't mind supplying my driver's license number to obtain a ballot. But I do object to having to say why I'll be away.

"I declare that I am eligible to vote absentee at the forthcoming primary or election since I expect to be absent from the municipality of my residence on the day of the primary or election for the reason stated below," read the box I needed to check. And then came: "Insert reason for absence here."

It so happens I'll be out of town giving a speech and said so. If I'd been requesting an absentee ballot due to illness or physical disability, I would have been required to insert the illness or physical disability. As I said, intrusive. The reason for my absence is none of the state's business, and anyway, we'd all be better served by allowing paper mailed ballots to be submitted in advance of Election Day for any reason, or no reason at all. Convenience should matter if the aim is to increase participation, not limit it.

At least this year was easier for me than what I experienced four years ago. Then, I learned I needed to be out of town at the last minute, after the absentee period had closed. This necessitated my procuring an emergency ballot. I downloaded the document, had it notarized, and walked it into the Board of Elections, adjacent to the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. There I was handed a paper ballot. The staff was sufficiently cordial and competent, but the process was archaic. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I wondered how many others would have surrendered the 90 minutes this took me in travel and processing time. That year, 24.44 percent of those registered voted — not one-quarter of the population, but rather only one out of four of those registered to vote.

I take voting seriously. At age 55, I've never missed an election for which I am eligible. Being registered as nonaffiliated in Pennsylvania — a closed primary state — means I don't get a say in primaries, which is also a shortcoming of the state's approach. If Pennsylvania were interested in increasing participation, we'd not only have open primaries but also allow voting on more than just one day between the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., and there'd be no need to assert why you will be out of town on Election Day. Gov. Wolf took a step in the right direction when allowing online voter registration in 2015, but it's time to go further, something he acknowledged in a conversation with me Thursday.

"We need to do everything we can to make our democracy more accessible, not less accessible. I'm committed to making our system more open," said the governor.

Though his party lacks control of the legislature, Wolf told me he hopes to enlist bipartisan support for three initiatives he will soon propose:  no-excuse balloting ("you shouldn't have to have a doctor's excuse"); online absentee-ballot applications ("you shouldn't have to fill out paper and pencil; we're in the 21st century"); and extending the time for the return of absentee ballots ("Pennsylvania has the most restrictive law in the country"). The governor also told me he is supportive of early voting, another area where the commonwealth is out of the national mainstream.

When I told Wolf that I suspected Pennsylvania's archaic voting system was a result of some wishing not to expand voter participation, he was more charitable.

"I would think that for the most part … what we see in Pennsylvania, like what you experienced, was more the result of just inaction and people not paying attention to this," he told me.

And he was optimistic when I expressed doubt as to his ability to draw bipartisan support for increasing participation.

"I'll find this out as I push for these reforms and continue to push in the coming months," he said, "but again I think objectively this should not be a partisan issue."

The Committee of Seventy hopes he is right.

" 'No-excuse' absentee ballots have been proposed by a number of folks, the Committee of Seventy among them, as a commonsense, reasonable next step to keep inching forward to at least the late 20th century," said committee president and CEO David Thornburgh.

"Unfortunately, our president, and political leaders in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, have so politicized election-related issues that even practical, commonsense reforms like that have a hard time gaining traction."

I never expected that in my lifetime I'd be able to buy beer in a Pennsylvania supermarket or that medical marijuana would be in the ground.  I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised for a third time.