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Pa. lawmakers approve an elections bill that would fund new voting machines, extend absentee ballot deadlines, and eliminate the straight-party voting option

The bill has advanced largely on party lines. It’s unclear where Wolf stands.

Voters cast their ballots in Philadelphia’s municipal primary election on May 21, 2019.
Voters cast their ballots in Philadelphia’s municipal primary election on May 21, 2019.Read moreJonathan Lai

HARRISBURG — While Pennsylvania lawmakers worked to wrap up the budget Thursday night, they also approved a controversial GOP-sponsored election bill that would eliminate straight-party voting, extend the absentee ballot deadline, and provide money for new voting machines.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf must now decide whether to sign or veto the bill, which passed both the House and Senate largely along party lines.

Some members of Wolf’s party railed against it, saying they feared that eliminating straight-party voting would stifle the voices of minorities, the poor and people with disabilities. Supporters noted that voters would still be able to vote along party lines, and that forcing people to select individual candidates would encourage them to research the races.

If approved, the changes would go into effect this fall, allowing election officials and voters to adapt before Democrats and Republicans jockey for the state in the 2020 presidential race and other contests. They would be the biggest changes to state election law in decades.

Some of the changes had been slowly advancing in the legislature, but got wrapped into one bill as Republican legislative leaders and Wolf negotiated over how to finish the state’s nearly $34 billion budget, due by Monday.

Here’s more on each of the proposals and what they could mean for voters.

Straight-party voting

In general elections, voters can select individual candidates or a “straight-party” option, which allows them to select all of the candidates who belong to a particular party by marking just one box. This bill would eliminate the straight party option.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that permit straight-party voting, though some of those states have limited it to certain races or passed plans to abolish it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks trends in state government.

It’s unclear how often Pennsylvania voters choose the straight-party option. Only some counties track that information. In Chester County, just shy of 50 percent of the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election were done using the straight-party option; in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, that number was roughly 42 percent.

Voting machines

Last year, Wolf, citing security concerns, ordered Pennsylvania counties to update their voting machines to ones that produce a paper trail that could easily be audited.

Some counties balked at the cost. Many of the counties that have made the change were already preparing to upgrade their machines when Wolf’s order came down.

The price of updating the machines is estimated at $150 million. Currently, $14.1 million has been set aside in federal funding and state funding. That’s nowhere near enough, county elections officials say.

Wolf had proposed setting aside $15 million every year for five years, totaling $75 million. The bill being pushed this week would set aside $90 million for the upgrades, covering roughly 60 percent of the estimated cost.

Democrats argued in favor of the additional funding, saying it was necessary to ensure ballot security and order in the upcoming presidential election.

Absentee voting

Pennsylvania’s absentee-ballot deadlines are among the nation’s most restrictive, and lawmakers from both parties have criticized them as unnecessarily tight. Each year, thousands of votes are rejected when their ballots arrive after the deadline, even though in many cases they arrive before Election Day.

And the would-be voters have no idea their voices went unheard.

If approved, this bill would extend the deadline for returning completed ballots by 11 days.

Mailed ballots would be accepted until 5 p.m. on the Tuesday after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by the Friday before the election.

Number of printed ballots

The proposal would also reduce the number of printed ballots each county is required to have on Election Day, saving costs.

Currently, state law requires counties to have enough printed ballots for 110 percent of the number of registered voters — more than will ever actually show up, given both turnout and the fact voter rolls are by design slow to update.

Instead, the bill would set the printed ballot requirement at 110 percent of the highest turnout of the previous three comparable elections. In a municipal primary, for instance, a county election board would need to have 110 percent of the highest number of votes cast in the previous three municipal primary elections.

Some elections officials have complained that the current requirement is costly and wasteful, since the printed ballots must be thrown out after an election.