It's a week after the midterm election, but in some places, the election is far from over. Ballots are still being counted in Arizona, a recount has started in Florida, and the Georgia gubernatorial race may be heading to a runoff. Close races and recounts test our election infrastructure — and the public's trust in it.
In Pennsylvania, Election Day went rather smoothly, and by the end of the night, all statewide and congressional races were called. But if some races had been just a little bit closer, we would have been in a lot of trouble.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 83 percent of all voters in Pennsylvania use voting machines that produce no paper trail. That means that 83 percent of votes can't be recounted. Only 13 other states use these type of machines. The Pa. Department of State has directed all counties to replace their voting machines to ones with a paper trail by 2020, but the state will not pay for it. The state will support the effort with $14,149,964 that came from the federal government for this purpose — including a 5 percent match from the state — but the Pa. Department of State's own estimated cost for the replacement is between $95 and $153 million.
Placing this burden on the counties doesn't seem fair, especially since what's at stake is securing one of the most sacred elements of democracy — voting. A hundred million dollars isn't peanuts for the state, either, but it's hard to imagine that there is no way to find that money. In 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf borrowed $1.5 billion against the state's tobacco fund to balance a budget. The point is, we find money for things we deem important. Protecting the integrity and accuracy of our elections should be a priority.
Another element in our election that deserves rethinking is statewide ballot measures. According to Ballotpedia, voters in 37 states had the opportunity to directly vote on a policy on their ballot. Some of the most exciting victories on election night came from ballot measures — Florida reinstated the right to vote for 1.5 million people with felony convictions; Nebraska, Utah, and Idaho expanded Medicaid; Missouri and Arkansa increased the minimum wage.
Pennsylvania voters did not see a ballot question. The commonwealth does not allow statewide citizen-initiated constitutional amendments or referendums on existing laws. Any question on the ballot has first to pass the State Assembly (House and Senate) in two consecutive sessions. That makes it extremely hard for a question to make it to the ballot.
Ballot measures are not a perfect — they depend on language and on voters having access to all the information needed. But by legislating a process through which citizens can propose constitutional amendments or hold a popular referendum, Pennsylvania can enrich its democracy.
As far as we know today, the 2018 midterm election in Pennsylvania was smooth, fair, and democratic. That does not mean that there aren't ways to make elections even more democratic. Investing in infrastructure that will allow recounts and allowing ballot measures would be a great start.