By Reggie Shuford
The ACLU of Pennsylvania is supporting legislation to modernize the commonwealth’s election laws, and that bill, Senate Bill 421, won approval from the Republican-controlled state House and Senate on Tuesday night. And Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the legislation.
Because there has been a fair amount of controversy about the bill among legislators and advocates who often agree with each other, I want to explain how we reached our conclusion.
Whenever the ACLU determines what position to take on a voting rights issue, we ask ourselves a key question: Does this create or diminish structural barriers to voting? If a legal change or government action creates a barrier, we oppose it. If it diminishes a barrier to the ballot, we support it. If it does neither, we take no position.
A voter ID requirement is a structural barrier to voting. Closing a polling place near a historically Black university is a structural barrier to voting. And the ACLU of Pennsylvania has litigated cases on both of these issues.
Examples of reforms that diminish barriers to the ballot and that we support include in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and Election Day voter registration.
It's an omnibus bill that's been pretty well covered so far. Includes a vote by mail provision, $90 million for new voting machines, $4 million for the census, and the elimination of straight ticket voting.
— Stephen Caruso (@StephenJ_Caruso) October 29, 2019
Which brings us to the bill the Generally Assembly passed Tuesday and sent to Wolf. It is the most significant election reform in Pennsylvania in several decades.
Consider what’s in the bill:
- Changing the deadline to submit absentee ballots from 5 p.m. the Friday before the election – which is the earliest deadline in the country – to 8 p.m. on Election Day
- Creating a vote-by-mail option that will allow anyone to vote by mail without giving a reason for doing so. Currently, Pennsylvanians can only vote absentee for a limited number of reasons, which they attest to under penalty of law.
- Shrinking the voter registration deadline from 30 days before an election to 15 days before an election.
- Appropriating $90 million for counties to upgrade their voting machines to include a paper trail, which is an important security measure that will confirm for voters that their ballot was counted as they intended.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s support for vote-by-mail, or what is sometimes called no-excuse absentee voting, dates back at least a decade, to when we supported legislation offered by then-Representative Babette Josephs to advance that reform.
Voting by mail will be a boon for working people with unpredictable schedules and for people with disabilities who face challenges in physically getting to the polls on Election Day.
And we are in court right now challenging Pennsylvania’s current absentee ballot deadline, arguing that it is unconstitutional under the state constitution’s voting rights and equal protection provisions.
Bill passes 138-61. Most no votes were from Democrats. Now heads to the Senate, and Gov. Tom Wolf has already agreed to sign.
— Stephen Caruso (@StephenJ_Caruso) October 29, 2019
Election data reported by the media and gathered by our lawyers indicates that, in every election, thousands of absentee voters don’t have their ballots counted because of this early deadline.
The current deadline is a structural barrier to voting, and SB 421 will diminish that barrier by extending the deadline.
Our clients are nine voters whose absentee ballots were not counted in the 2018 election, including an emergency medical technician, several students who attend school out of state, a journalist, and a public relations professional.
To be clear, we are certainly aware of the controversy over another provision in the bill that will eliminate the straight party voting option. When advocates and legislators raise the spectre of voter suppression, we take that seriously.
In our analysis, eliminating the straight party voting option neither creates a barrier to voting nor diminishes one, and, thus, we have no position on that issue.
No one will lose the right to vote because of the elimination of straight party voting. While Pennsylvania’s voters may be accustomed to having the option to vote for all candidates from one party with a single push of a button, it is reasonable to expect that voters will adapt and vote based on the ballot that is in front of them.
Straight party voting is not common, in fact; Pennsylvania is one of just nine states that have it. The others are Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
We truly understand the passions on both sides of this bill. At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we determined that Senate Bill 421 will eliminate barriers to the ballot for thousands of the commonwealth’s citizens. And that’s why we’ve asked state legislators to vote “yes” on this bill and hope Gov. Wolf will sign it.
Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
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