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Pa.’s election system is on the verge of the largest changes in decades — in time for the 2020 election

Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers agreed to fund voting machines, expand ballot access, and remove straight-party voting. Votes in the full House and Senate are awaited.

A student tries out the new voting machines that will be used in Philadelphia that were on display at the Community College of Philadelphia in September. The deal between the governor and legislature would eliminate straight-ticket voting.
A student tries out the new voting machines that will be used in Philadelphia that were on display at the Community College of Philadelphia in September. The deal between the governor and legislature would eliminate straight-ticket voting.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has reached a deal with Republican lawmakers — who control the state legislature — on the largest fundamental modifications of how ballots are cast in decades.

Several are reforms that Democrats have long sought. And while none would catapult Pennsylvania to the bleeding edge of electoral reform, in many cases they would expand access to voting in a state that has fallen behind.

The changes include:

  1. Allowing any voter to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail without providing a reason, as they currently must.

  2. Creating a permanent mail-in voter list.

  3. Reducing the voter registration deadline from 30 to 15 days before an election.

  4. Extending the tight absentee-ballot deadlines that currently ensnare thousands of voters every year.

  5. Funding $90 million for a statewide upgrade to more-secure voting machines.

  6. Eliminating the straight-party ticket voting option that allows voters to select every candidate from a party with a single choice.

The bill, SB421, was amended and passed out of committee Tuesday. To become law, the full House and Senate must pass it and Wolf must sign it. As written, the changes would take effect in time for the 2020 presidential primary election.

Those changes would help push the state out of the back of the pack.

For example, Pennsylvania’s voter registration deadline is one of the earliest in the nation, so a 15-day deadline is an improvement — but many states allow eligible citizens to register and vote on Election Day.

Nor does the bill include automatic voter registration when people interact with state agencies. Or changes that advocates in Pennsylvania have focused on, especially redistricting reform or opening primary elections to independent and third-party voters.

“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.”

Wolf “believes it is a compromise and reasonable step forward towards improving our antiquated voting laws,” a spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans called it “a really good compromise package”; the bill also achieves House Republicans’ goals of providing funding to counties for voting machines and of helping “provide the most fair, accessible, and secure elections possible,” a spokesperson said.

It was a compromise months in the making.

Many of the provisions unveiled this week were passed — by Republicans, largely along party lines — in June, but Wolf issued a rare veto, objecting in part to the elimination of the straight-party voting option.

Wolf then said he would make one of the key pieces of the bill happen without legislative approval: $90 million in state funding for new voting machines.

(Wolf last year had ordered every county to replace its voting machines with more modern and secure ones that leave a paper trail, allowing voters to ensure their selections are properly made and permitting manual recounts and audits of election results. But counties have struggled with that mandate, which will cost an estimated $150 million statewide.)

Republicans said Wolf’s funding plan was unlawful, leaving counties in limbo.

This week’s deal includes the $90 million funding plan for the voting machines.

Many of the changes focus on the state’s absentee-ballot system, which is more restrictive than most states.

Under current rules, only some voters are eligible for absentee ballots and the window to request an absentee ballot, receive it in the mail, fill it out, and have it returned can be as tight as three days. Those deadlines lead to thousands of rejected absentee ballots every year, and in the 2018 midterm election, Pennsylvania absentee ballots arrived late at a rate 11 times the nation’s.

The bill would allow all voters to request a mail-in ballot without specifying a reason, and to be placed on a permanent list so they do not need to apply for absentee status for each election. It would also extend the deadline for returning an absentee ballot by four days, so voters can return them by 8 p.m. on Election Day instead of by 5 p.m. the Friday prior.

Some changes have more bipartisan support. Others are generally supported by Democrats, with some exceptions.

The big get for Republicans? The removal of the straight-party voting option that allows voters to simply select a party and cast a vote for each candidate in that party in an election, instead of individually selecting every candidate.

When Wolf vetoed the earlier bill, he said removing the straight-party voting option “could lead to voter confusion and longer lines at the polls,” ultimately decreasing voter participation. Democratic lawmakers said it would suppress the votes of people who don’t speak English or with limited educations, and compared removal of the straight-party voting option to racist voter suppression attempts throughout American history.

Micah Sims, head of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said that he supports the entire bill and that removal of the straight-party voting option is a positive one for voters. Invoking civil rights fights is inappropriate, he said.

“Are we now saying that African American people don’t have the ability to push extra buttons?” said Sims, who is black. “The bill needs to be commended, and I would hope we are not getting ready to go down the rabbit hole of race.”

Pennsylvania is one of just nine states with the straight-party voting option.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, head of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said Wolf should not help remove straight-party voting options from the ballot.

“That benefits Republicans in the middle of the state,” he said. “We’re fighting that.”

Brady said he did not know whether the legislation has the votes for passage, though the Democrats are in the minority in Harrisburg and blocking the bill would be difficult if Republicans support it.

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.