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How Pennsylvania could improve voting and elections, according to advocates and experts

Pennsylvania is implementing the biggest changes to its electoral system in decades. But when it comes to ballot access, those reforms will only move the state from the back of the U.S. pack to the middle.

New voting machines were shown to the public at Reading Terminal Market in June.
New voting machines were shown to the public at Reading Terminal Market in June.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

Pennsylvania is implementing the biggest changes to its electoral system in decades, including an expansion of absentee ballot access, easier voter registration, the elimination of straight-party voting, and tens of millions of dollars for new voting machines.

But when it comes to ballot access, those changes, part of a bipartisan deal enacted in October, will only move the state from the back of the U.S. pack to the middle.

“It’s clear improvement on the whole to the process — sort of maybe revolutionary only by Pennsylvania standards,” said David Thornburgh, head of the Philadelphia-based good-government group Committee of Seventy. “On the Richter scale of change, it’s not a nine.”

So, voting rights advocates and experts, while applauding the changes, want lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf to go further. The Inquirer asked for their wish lists. They offered dozens of ideas about voting rights, election security and integrity, and political representation. Some would likely garner support only on partisan lines; others could have bipartisan backing. Some are bolstered by research and proven track records elsewhere, while others are newer ideas.

All came from a sense that Pennsylvania can do better, and that election modernization and voting reform should not end with this year’s law.

Here are some of their ideas.

» READ MORE: Voting rights and election reform are hot topics with Pa. lawmakers. It’s a moment three decades in the making.

Redistricting reform

Pennsylvania’s congressional map was considered one of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in the country before the state Supreme Court threw it out as unfairly skewed in Republicans’ favor.

The landmark decision gave hope to a grassroots movement that in the last few years has raised public awareness of how maps are contorted to benefit politicians.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania, gerrymandered: A guide to Pa.’s congressional map redistricting fight

Activists have been successful at persuading legislators to focus on the issue, but a high-profile attempt at amending the state constitution failed last year.

Automatic voter registration

Activists would like to take the so-called motor-voter law, under which people are asked at the Department of Motor Vehicles whether they want to register to vote, and flip it on its head: Register people by default unless they opt out. They’d also like to see voter registration expanded to other agencies and times when people interact with government.

“This is really about getting everybody participating in our democracy who is eligible to,” said Sara Mullen of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We have to get creative about all the ways we interact with our government or our agencies and getting people registered to vote.”

More chances for voter registration

Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to “preregister” so they can vote when they turn 18 would work particularly well with automatic voter registration, Mullen said, because then they can sign up to vote while getting their driver’s license.

And after years of cutting off voter registration 30 days before an election, the state’s new Act 77 shortened that window to 15 days. But some advocates say allowing people to register on Election Day itself should be the goal.

“It is the most reliable means to increase turnout from people of color and also young people, and I just think that’s critical,” said Ray Murphy of Keystone Votes, a nonpartisan voting rights coalition led by Pennsylvania Voice.

Vote centers

While polling places cover a small geographic area for one or a handful of precincts — Philadelphia has hundreds of polling places for 1,703 precincts — vote centers would cover a broader geographic area, similar to the way a library does. Moving to vote centers and away from polling places would lessen the burden on poll workers — but also raise concerns about accessibility.

» READ MORE: Every Philly polling place will soon be accessible to voters with physical disabilities and mobility issues

» READ MORE: Voting rights groups question Philly’s polling place changes

Poll worker training

There’s a growing shortage of workers who can staff polling places every election, and those workers are often under-trained. Many advocates and elections officials say improving and increasing poll worker training is a priority.

Open primaries

Instead of closed primary elections, in which voters must be registered as Democrats or Republicans to vote, open primary elections allow all voters to participate. The idea has been backed by top lawmakers concerned about polarization.

Although it’s not clear whether or how much allowing independent and third-party voters to participate in primaries would actually reduce political polarization, advocates said it’s inherently unfair to exclude some voters.

» READ MORE: Why open primary elections won't solve Pa.'s polarization problem

“It just responds to a very basic need for more representation and a sense of fairness and basic principles of democracy,” Thornburgh said. “Every voter ought to be able to vote in every election.”

Ballot randomization

The order of candidates on the ballot is determined randomly, but after that it’s the same for every voter. In Philadelphia, where ballots can contain dozens of names, being listed high up can help a candidate win.

Randomizing the ballot for each individual voter would remove that effect.

» READ MORE: How ballot position can sway Philly elections — and why new voting machines won’t be a fix

Mandatory post-election audits

Pennsylvania’s move toward paper-based voting systems allows for post-election audits that check whether the paper ballots match the reported election results. These so-called risk-limiting audits, considered the gold standard in the field, were tested this month in Philadelphia and Mercer County in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and election-security experts said they should be mandatory after every election.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia tested a way to protect the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania

“It’s not enough to just get the new machines," said Chris Deluzio, policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. "To make it really effective and to really give voters the confidence they deserve in the outcomes … requires doing the mandatory post-election audits.”

Improve election administration

Almost every advocate and expert interviewed said changes to the system are only as good as how they’re implemented. Elections officials are already strapped for resources, and many are warning they may struggle to implement this round of changes.

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

Elections officials need more money and staff, advocates said, as well as a coordinated effort to implement these changes and prepare for next year’s presidential election.

“It’s been 80 years since we’ve done something like this,” said Micah Sims, head of the Pennsylvania branch of the good-government group Common Cause. “We can’t allow one particular entity to do it all by themselves. We have to work together.”