For the first time, Pennsylvanians will be able to apply online for absentee ballots starting next week, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday, a move that could help some of the thousands of registrants whose votes go uncounted each year and never realize it.
Absentee ballots would still be sent to voters by mail and returned either by mail or in person, but allowing people to request the ballots online, rather than by mailing in an application, could shave a few days off the state’s process.
The state’s absentee-ballot deadlines, as set in the Election Code, provide a tight window for voting absentee: Applications are due by a week before an election, and the ballots themselves have to be received by county elections officials by 5 p.m. the Friday before the election.
That gives three days between the deadlines for requesting a ballot and for having it returned. And mail takes time to get from one point to the other and can sometimes encounter problems.
The result is a system that leaves thousands of votes uncounted each year, more than almost every other state. Wolf said the online applications “will make the process faster and more accessible for thousands of voters.”
Wolf’s announcement doesn’t change the law itself — earlier this summer, he vetoed a Republican elections reform bill that included expanding absentee-ballot deadlines — and it’s unclear how lawmakers will respond. (In 2015, Wolf similarly implemented online voter registration.) Those deadlines are also being challenged in court by national and state civil rights groups.
Senate Republicans said they approved of Wolf’s action and called for further changes to the electoral system.
“Governor Wolf’s decision today is a good step toward increasing voter access to absentee ballots,” Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for the caucus, said in a statement. “We still believe meaningful legislative changes such as the ones vetoed by the Governor earlier this year still need to be made in order to significantly improve the Commonwealth’s voting practices.”
“The deadlines set in the 1937 election code have become increasingly challenging to meet,” Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a statement, ”and the ability to apply online will cut days from the process.”
At launch, the online application will be open to domestic voters using a PennDOT driver’s license or ID number. The Pennsylvania Department of State plans to expand that to military and overseas voters and voters who do not have a PennDOT number by 2020.