Same-day voter registration. Automatic registration. In-person early voting. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register. Holding “open” primaries. Forcing “dark money” groups to disclose their donors.
Those are among myriad concepts that state lawmakers are proposing to change the ways people can register and vote, how ballots are cast and counted, and how campaigns and elections are run.
It remains unclear what will become of it all, but election-related legislation has reached new peaks of popularity in Harrisburg. In the last session the word “election” appeared a record 429 times in bill summaries, according to an Inquirer analysis, more than triple the number three decades prior.
“This is part of a broader national pattern that reflects both the recognition that the rules very much affect outcomes, and that fundamental questions of voting rights have become more salient for many voters,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Six months into the 2019-2020 legislative session, 252 pieces of election-related legislation have already been introduced. That’s more than in any of the entire two-year sessions from 1979-1980 through 1997-1998.
Scanning legislation summaries is an imperfect measure and can’t capture the nuances of individual bills; still, Borick said, the approach “is solid and a reasonable way to identify and compare the frequency of bills dealing with election matters.”
Just last week, lawmakers advanced several proposals, including allowing independent and third-party voters to vote in open primary elections and mail-in voting without providing an absentee excuse; setting new rules on voting machines and paper ballots; and creating an advisory panel tasked with studying the state’s election laws and suggesting changes.
Election-related legislation also has risen nationally, according to LexisNexis data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There have also been efforts to expand voting access in New Jersey, where Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s office, and last year the state enacted automatic voter registration. Democrats also sought to change redistricting, but it was seen as allowing gerrymandering and the effort failed.
Not just the flavor of the month
“In my mind, elections is an evergreen topic for legislators,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ elections and redistricting team.
She pointed to the major 1934 book Election Administration in the United States: “The very same issues that we wrestle with today, we were wrestling with then: How do you know who is eligible to vote in your election? How do you know how the votes will be counted? How do you protect votes?”
What is new, outside experts, political observers, and lawmakers agreed, pointing to data that align with their own observations: National interest in electoral reform has grown.
“People are looking at this and saying this system is not working the way it’s supposed to, and want to see changes to government,” said state Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R., Luzerne), who wears an orange tie in Harrisburg as a symbol of partisan independence. “The institutions aren’t solving the problems of our country, so people are saying maybe it’s time to change the way we have established these institutions in the first place.”
Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) agreed, saying that people have seen how previously arcane or wonky issues have real impact on elections. Take campaign finance or redistricting, he said: “In the past it was a real niche issue that regular voters did not pay particular attention to because they thought it was just minutiae of politics.”
The focus of legislative efforts changes from year to year.
A Pennsylvania law requiring a photo ID to vote, perhaps the biggest change to the state’s electoral system, was enacted in 2012 and later struck down as unconstitutional; Gov. Tom Wolf implemented online voter registration in 2015, but it was not created through legislation.
Democrats, in particular, have pursued a variety of changes to expand access to voting nationwide, including automatic voter registration, early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting.
Pennsylvania’s partisanship problem
Some ideas have Republican backing — Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) is behind a push for open primaries in Pennsylvania — but the state’s strong partisan divide has impeded election-reform efforts.
“The big problem was coming to any kind of agreement in the past, because each party was trying to do things that were beneficial to them,” said state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre).
A high-profile attempt to change how the state’s congressional maps are drawn, led by citizen group Fair Districts PA and energized after last year’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to overturn the map, ended in legislative defeat.
Lawmakers from both sides said they wanted change — they just couldn’t agree on what that change should look like.
“You need trust in the other side to maybe broker deals, and that’s been absent,” Borick said, “Sure, there’s lots of interest in moving these forward, but you run into the practical limitations of partisan politics.”
That might — might — be changing, some lawmakers said, pointing to recent movement to bills in both chambers.
Corman cited open primaries and removing straight-ticket voting on party lines, two ideas that he said have received bipartisan support because they are meant to address issues of polarization and are nonpartisan in nature. Boyle agreed that some ideas are nonpartisan or have bipartisan support because they affect both sides, citing the issue of absentee ballots, which are more restricted in Pennsylvania than other states.
If the two sides can’t come together and get things done, Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) said, one side will just have to win control of state government. (Of course, he’d prefer it to be his.)
“You can only compromise with people who want to compromise,” Hughes said. “Elections matter, alright? We change the face of the General Assembly, we change the majorities in both or either one of the sides of the building with the House and the Senate, that then changes the opportunity for democracy to expand in Pennsylvania.”