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Extending Pennsylvania’s voter registration deadline in 2020 could disenfranchise people, election officials warn

“On such a short deadline, there is a real risk that they don’t even get processed,” said Philly’s elections chief

A Community College of Philadelphia student fills out a Why I Vote card after registering to vote during a registration drive on Sept. 24, 2019.
A Community College of Philadelphia student fills out a Why I Vote card after registering to vote during a registration drive on Sept. 24, 2019.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Elections officials in multiple Pennsylvania counties are warning that an impending change to voter registration deadlines — a measure meant to increase political participation — would add significantly to their pre-election workloads, potentially causing confusion for voters at the polls and unintentionally disenfranchising people in 2020.

The change is part of a wide-ranging elections bill negotiated behind closed doors by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and Republican leaders who control the state legislature. The bill represents the most significant changes to Pennsylvania’s electoral system in decades, including allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots by mail and extending deadlines to return them.

The legislature gave final approval Tuesday to the bill, which Wolf said he would sign.

“This bipartisan bill creates the most significant improvements to our elections in more than 80 years. Pennsylvania has gone from collectively being the state least friendly to voters to a national leader in voting and election security reforms,” he said in a statement.

But the proposed change to the voter-registration deadline surprised and alarmed the county officials who run elections. Closing the registration window 15 days before an election, instead of the current 30 days, would require more staff to process registrations and increase the number of voters who are not in poll books. That, officials warn, could unintentionally disenfranchise voters by increasing their chances of running into problems at the polls, including waiting in long lines or needing provisional ballots. In the worst-case scenario, some registrations might not get processed in time.

“It could really risk having a detrimental effect on the election,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners. She estimates the change could cost Philadelphia about $2 million.

“We could inadvertently be causing more grief for voters than this is helping in the end,” said Jeff Greenburg, Mercer County elections director.

“It’s creating an unnecessary situation where we really don’t need one,” said Gerald Feaser, head of elections in Dauphin County.

A spokesperson for the governor said the administration will work with counties to ensure having the resources necessary to enact the changes and noted that extending the voter-registration deadline “has been long sought by election advocates.” (Pennsylvania’s current 30-day deadline is one of the earliest in the country, and many states have already moved to same-day registration, allowing people to register on Election Day and cast a ballot.)

County officials said their concern is administrative, not ideological, and in many cases said they support the change, just not its implementation. The concerns come from both Republican and Democratic counties.

There’s an election next week. It will take time to certify those results, and then the presidential primary is in April, five months later. That’s not enough time, Deeley said, to make such a big change to how her office does its work.

“I am for all these changes," said Deeley, an elected Democrat. "I think they’re a long time coming. But even the best ideas, if implemented poorly, turn into bad ideas. And five months really is not a responsible amount of time for us to be able to cut a process in half.”

The problem with changing voter-registration deadlines

Currently, voters can submit applications — whether for new registrations or to update them with changed addresses or party affiliations — up until 30 days before an election. Applications are generally processed in the order they arrive, and that can take days, especially for new registrations, which require officials to check previous addresses.

And a lot of applications come in at the deadline: About one in five paper applications submitted in Philadelphia for the 2016 general election arrived on the last day.

Those continued to be processed for days after the deadline.

“You shut off the tap, but now you have to process everything that’s in the sink,” said Randall O. Wenger, the chief elections clerk in Lancaster County.

That’s in part because elections workers also have to prepare the poll books that voters sign. In Philadelphia, those are sent out for printing 18 days before an election. Already, a number of registrations aren’t processed in time and end up on supplemental lists that can be confusing for poll workers and voters.

In some cases, applications can’t be processed in time or are misplaced, and voters are forced to use provisional ballots, which can make them question whether their votes are counted.

“If there’s confusion in the books, it’s going to affect voters. It’s going to affect lines,” said Greenburg. “Even if it’s resolved after the fact, just the fact that a voter walks in believing they’re legally registered and that’s questioned by a poll worker, even if it’s an innocent or honest mistake, that’s not a good thing, ever.”

What counties will need

County officials were clear: To process the flood of last-minute voter registrations, they will need money for more workers, more computers, and extra office space.

Deeley estimated that Philadelphia would need about $2 million to double staff working on those applications — an increase of 20% to the commissioners’ $10 million budget.

Other counties’ elections administrators agreed they would need more people or to extend their working hours.

“We’ll have to hire more people to be able to make sure that we keep juggling all the balls that are in the air as you close in on Election Day,” said Feaser, of Dauphin County. “You keep throwing balls at jugglers, sooner or later one of them’s going to drop.”

Can anything be changed?

While county elections officials said they support most of the rest of the proposal, there was clear frustration about the voter registration deadline and lack of communication from Harrisburg.

“You can’t ignore the jurisdictions that have to do all that work and throw it at them and say, ‘Get it done,’” said Greenburg.

Most provisions have been discussed for years, said Forest Lehman, Lycoming County’s elections director, but “this 15-day thing really came out of nowhere with this bill and took us by surprise.”

Douglas Hill, head of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, emphasized that the overall bill is supported by his members — “for us the story is the entirety of the package” — but acknowledged that CCAP had not been privy to negotiations.

Lawmakers in the House on Monday considered a number of amendments to the bill, including voting down attempts by Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) to delay implementation of the voter-registration deadline change.

Philadelphia Democrats opposed the bill because of its removal of the option to vote straight-party with one selection. The deadline change gave them further cause for concern, they said.

Kenyatta, who like other Philadelphia Democrats voted against the bill, said he supports most of its provisions but fears the changes will be rushed and ultimately affect voters.

“This is like asking a Model T to be a Ferrari, to go as fast, and it is impossible,” he said. “Let’s do this right. We all want to do this, let’s just do it right.”