When the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Harrisburg is frothing at the mouth to enact voter reform, it should give everyone in the state pause.
After all, it was then-House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who infamously made remarks months prior to the presidential election of 2012 that newly enacted voter identification legislation, championed by his party, would help GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carry Pennsylvania.
This Republican attempt at voter reform had political motivations behind it then as it does now.
With this week’s passage of Republican-backed election reform legislation in both chambers, the Pennsylvania GOP is back at the same shenanigans. This time the legislation will eliminate straight-ticket voting under the guise of making elections fairer for all candidates.
Both Voter ID laws of 2012 and the elimination of straight-ticket voting in 2019 will impact vulnerable communities the most, especially communities of color.
Eliminating straight-ticket voting is another barrier to participation in political life for often ignored voters, who in return are typically low propensity voters.
Now-House Speaker Turzai, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and company are counting the elimination of straight-ticket voting to help Republicans win down ballot races in 2020 including that for auditor general, state senator and representative, as well as important municipal and judicial races this November.
Voting rates are low in Pennsylvania and up until 2018, they were declining, particularly in “off-year” non-presidential elections.
It’s hard to vote in Pennsylvania. We don’t have early voting like most other states, that allow for several days of voting at the electorate’s convenience and work schedule.
And we have long ballots containing row and row of candidates for offices that many voters know nothing about.
Candidates for the General Assembly are often hard to find on the ballot and voters rarely know much about them. Not only is voter turnout skewed to more highly educated and higher income voters, but those voters have the time to learn more about down-ballot races.
The repercussion will be serious If straight-ticket voting is eliminated effective for this November’s election. Ending straight ticket voting could suppress the vote from communities of color and low-income communities, especially regarding down ballot races, as a higher proportion of African American, Latinx and low-income voters use the straight party option.
For some voters, it’s a source of pride to say they hit the straight party button, for others it’s a time saver, and for still others it’s a necessary tool for voting in down ballot races because too many candidates provide little information to ignore certain communities during their campaigns.
We can’t risk suppressing any votes in the upcoming elections. Our vote is sacred.
The Legislature should be passing a package of legislation that more adequately funds our elections, protects our voting machines from potential fraud and attacks from foreign governments, and makes it easier, not harder, for all of the electorate to vote by instituting early voting and same day registration.
If the Republican-led General Assembly is serious about making elections fairer for candidates, it would enact campaign finance reform.
The Republican election reform bill sponsored by Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, has some important provisions, especially in helping counties pay for new, secure voting machines.
But, by adding the elimination of straight ticket voting to the bill, the Republicans in the General Assembly have twisted a good government proposal to seek political gain.
History shows us that the GOP members of general assembly can’t be trusted to make fair maps or fund our elections properly.
They can’t be trusted with protecting the voting rights of the most vulnerable communities in Pennsylvania.
And because of that, Pennsylvanians should call upon Gov. Tom Wolf to veto straight-ticket elimination legislation until serious debate around this issue can happen on the House and Senate floors, and not be rushed through at the expense of voters because certain legislators want to go home for the summer.
Let’s get it right. That doesn’t mean getting it done haphazardly.
Kadida Kenner is the director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which includes the projects We The People–PA, and Why Courts Matter–PA. She writes from Harrisburg. Her work appears regularly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.