Starting Sept. 16, Pennsylvanians can apply for absentee ballots online

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    During past elections, Pennsylvanians who needed an absentee ballot had to apply by mail or in-person at a county election office.

    That will change on Sept. 16, when registered voters will be able to request an absentee ballot online.

    The new application, which will be available at votesPA.com/ApplyAbsentee, will initially “require a PennDOT driver license or ID number in order to be processed electronically,” according to a press release from the Department of State.

    “When an applicant completes the online form, the information is forwarded directly to the appropriate county elections office for processing,” the press release continues.

    Lawmakers and good-government advocates have criticized Pennsylvania’s absentee voting system as restrictive to the point it disenfranchises voters. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in 2018 over the current deadline, which requires absentee ballots to arrive at county elections’ offices by 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day.

    That will not change with the new online application system.

    “Voters must still mail or hand-deliver their completed ballot to their county election office by the deadline, which is 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election, or Nov. 1 this year,” the DOS press release states.

    The deadline to apply for a ballot, either by mail or online, is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29.

    “This online application is our latest innovation to make voting more convenient and increase voter participation,” DOS Secretary Kathy Boockvar said. “The deadlines set in the 1937 election code have become increasingly challenging to meet, and the ability to apply online will cut days from the process.”

    In recent sessions, the General Assembly has considered changing that deadline, which the ACLU says is the earliest in the country.

    An omnibus elections bill advanced by Sen. John R. Gordner, R-Columbia, during budget negotiations earlier this year would have loosened the deadline by requiring ballots to be postmarked, rather than delivered, by the Friday before Election Day. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill, which also tied voting machine funding to the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

    Reps. Tina Davis, D-Bucks, and Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, are each sponsoring bills that would allow for absentee ballots to be collected after Election Day.

    At the same time, Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, and Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, are sponsoring bills that would create no-excuse absentee voting in Pennsylvania. Absentee voting is currently limited to the following groups, per DOS:

    • “A person with an illness or physical disability who is unable to go to the polling place or to operate a voting machine and obtain assistance by distinct and audible statements. (Note: A voter with a disability may have permanent absentee voter status.)
    • “A person who will not go to a polling place on Election Day because of the observance of a religious holiday.
    • “A spouse or dependent residing with or accompanying a person in the military service of the United States.
    • “A member of the Merchant Marine and their spouse and dependents residing with or accompanying them.
    • “A member of a religious or welfare group attached to and serving with the armed forces and their spouse and dependents residing with or accompanying them.
    • “A spouse or dependent accompanying a person employed by the Commonwealth or the federal government, whose duties, occupation or business on Election Day require them to be away from the Commonwealth or their municipality of residence.
    • “An individual, and their spouse and dependents residing with or accompanying them, with duties, occupation or business (including leaves of absence for teaching, vacations and sabbatical leaves) away from their official residence on Election Day.
    • “A county employee who expects that their Election Day duties relating to the conduct of the election will prevent them from voting.”

    In a statement, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said the administration’s announcement was “a good step toward increasing voter access to absentee ballots.”

    But the Senate GOP still believes that “meaningful legislative changes such as the one’s vetoed by the Governor earlier this year still need to be made in order to significantly improve the Commonwealth’s voting practices,” the spokeswoman, Jennifer Kocher, said.

    Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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