PA Compromise Would End Straight-Ticket, Open Up Vote By Mail and Fund Voting Machine Upgrades

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A new compromise bill in Pennsylvania would make several significant changes to the Keystone State’s elections while freeing up $90 million for new voting technology. The Morning Call has more:

Legislation unveiled Monday would overhaul some aspects of how voters cast ballots in Pennsylvania while delivering much of the money counties need to buy voting machines ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The measure that emerged after several months of closed-door negotiations between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders of the Legislature’s Republican majorities would let any voter mail in a ballot, eliminate the ballot option for straight party-ticket voting and move voter-registration deadlines closer to elections.

It is part of a deal to approve $90 million in aid for voting machines that Wolf wanted counties to buy, a move he had framed as bolstering Pennsylvania’s election security against hackers.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that handles election-related bills, Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said he supports it in the hopes it would increase voter participation.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, would not say whether he supported the measure, but he said the legislator supports getting the money to the counties and updating Pennsylvania’s election laws “to be as fair and secure as possible.”

Wolf’s office would only say they were reviewing the wording, and many rank-and-file lawmakers, including Democrats, had not read the measure.

The driving force behind the bill is the ongoing dispute between the Governor and the legislature about authority to fund new voting equipment:

Talks on the package started after Wolf vetoed a bill in July that carried the $90 million and the elimination of the straight party-ticket voting option. Top Republicans hadn’t negotiated the bill with him before sending it to his desk, and it lacked his election-reform priorities, he had said.

Wolf then vowed to borrow the money for voting machines the counties, using his existing authority, but was met with a threat of litigation by House Republicans and has not gone through with that plan.

The key trade in the bill is elimination of straight-ticket voting in exchange for a later registration deadline and an overhaul of Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail laws, which are currently some of the most restrictive in the nation:

[V]oters would no longer have the single-choice option on a ballot to simply select a political party’s candidate for each office. Republicans began pressing earlier this year to eliminate the straight-party voting option, amid worries that suburban Republican lawmakers will suffer from a voter backlash against President Donald Trump next year.

Wolf and other Democrats had protested the move, saying it could lead to longer waiting lines at polls, and that it was designed to benefit down-ballot Republican candidates. Republicans countered that most states don’t allow it, although voters in one state, Michigan, restored it by ballot referendum last year after the state’s Republican-controlled government eliminated it.

For people who want to register to vote, the deadline would move from 30 days before an election to 15 days.

Another provision would let any voter mail in a ballot for any reason. Currently, mailing in ballots is restricted to “absentee” voters who meet a narrow set of reasons laid out in the Constitution, including people who can’t vote in person because of job-related travel, religious observance, illness or physical disability.

With a lawsuit pending over Pennsylvania’s deadlines for counties to receive absentee ballots, the bill adjusts those deadlines to 8 p.m. on the day of the election. Currently, the deadline is the Friday before the election…

The new bill doesn’t deliver all of Wolf’s election-reform priorities: He had also wanted same-day registration and early voting.

The compromise will allow counties to continue moving ahead with voting equipment upgrades:

Most of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have moved to replace their voting systems to the kind that Wolf wanted: systems that include voter-verifiable paper backups that are widely embraced by election integrity advocates and computer scientists.

The so-called direct-recording electronic machines in wide use in Pennsylvania’s 2016 election leave no paper trail and make it almost impossible to know if they’ve accurately recorded individual votes or if anyone tampered with the count.

The bill is expected to start receiving committee votes this week; if enacted, it will not only keep Pennsylvania on track for its planned voting technology upgrades but also result in significant revisions to the state’s voting laws. It will be interesting to see if the registration and vote-by-mail changes are enough to offset the concerns about longer lines due to the elimination of straight-ticket. In addition, there is always the challenge of implementing new policies in the high stress environment of a presidential election. Stay tuned …

 

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