After many years of nothing happening in regards to Pennsylvania’s election laws, many changes have been recently passed into law and more could be on the way.
In a historic compromise, Republicans agreed to allow voters to mail in their ballots and to move the voter registration deadline closer to the election. Democrats have been calling for these changes for years but have been stymied by their Republican counterparts in the state Legislature.
In addition, Republicans also yielded to Gov. Tom Wolf’s request for $90 million to help counties buy new election machines. Wolf had maintained that new voting machines were needed because of concern that Russia or other counties could hack into the older voting machines.
However, in exchange, Wolf agreed to eliminate the ballot option for straight party ticket voting. This had long been one of the GOP’s goals but it had been blocked previously by Wolf and Democratic lawmakers. Republicans contended for years that the straight party-ticket option encouraged voters to blindly pick parties instead of candidates.
There have been cries that this will hurt Democratic Party candidates down the ballot. Some note that straight-party voting has been done for years, especially by older Democrats of color.
While there certainly is a possibility that the move could cost votes for Democratic Party candidates, it’s far from a sure thing. There’s nothing to prevent voters from still casting their ballots for Democrats. It might take five or 10 minutes longer, but it can be done if voters want to do it. It could also affect Republican candidates as a number of their voters are also older and wary of change.
At any rate, making it easier for people, especially for younger citizens, to cast their ballots has to be seen as a victory for anyone interested in increasing voter turnout.
If the changes result in any increases in the number of voters, they will be well worth it.
The other change is coming from three GOP members of the state House of Representatives who want to do away with cross-filing by school board, county judicial, and district magistrate candidates.
Rep. Justin Simmons, R-Lehigh, who’s been working on the issue for the past few legislative sessions, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star that the bill is intended to address the increasingly partisan nature of campaigns for public offices that have traditionally been nonpartisan.
We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think [these races are partisan],” Simmons said. “It’s human nature. People should know who [these candidates] are..”
The bill is now before the House State Government Committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, is “supportive” of the proposal, said state Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Fayette, one of the bill’s backers.
The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has not taken a position on the bill, said the agency in an email response to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
Simmons certainly does have a point. For the most part, these elections are political. Many candidates for these positions work behind the scenes to get the support of leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties. But there remains the question of whether to we should make these elections more political, especially given the partisan times we live in.
However, the issues raised in these elections, by and large, are local, not national. Candidates for these posts aren’t talking about building walls or sending immigrants back to Mexico. They’re talking about building new schools and roads and lowering or raising local taxes.
Those aren’t necessarily views linked to Democratic or Republican parties.
And many times in local elections, personalities dominate much more than party affiliation.
If the measure passes, it could well result in fewer primary elections, which would be a shame since interest in such elections is already at an all-time low. However, it could result in more general election contests, which would be a good thing.
In the end, it could be a good thing for the electorate. However, as it’s being sponsored by Republican lawmakers you have to think it would benefit GOP candidates rather than the Democratic Party candidates.
Toward that end, Wolf might want to take another stab at a compromise.
Perhaps, Wolf could back the bill in exchange for getting Republicans to agree to same-day registration and voting, which has been one of the main goals for Democrats over the years. He might also be able to get Republicans to agree to a measure permitting early voting, which has been another long-talked-about option for Democrats.
Speaking to the Capital-Star last week, Wolf held open the possibility of further compromise, including same-day registration.
“We took [registration] from 30 days to 15 days, so it’s big progress,” Wolf said. “Are there other things, where maybe we can work across the the aisle in a bipartisan way, as we did in this election bill, to refine our system even further? But I’m very proud of what Pennsylvania has [now].”
And what about getting the GOP to do away with gerrymandering? Well, let’s not get crazy here.
It’s possible, though, that after working out one major compromise, a second one could be coming. Instead of being looked at as a dirty word by Republicans and Democrats, especially in recent years, compromise might just be what’s needed to get anything done in Harrisburg.
Capital Star opinion contributor, Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald Standard of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly.