Here’s how voting will be different in Pennsylvania by the 2020 primary

By: - October 31, 2019 1:05 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf is flanked by Sen. Lisa Boscola and Majority Leader Bryan Cutler as he signs a voting bill. (Photo courtesy Wolf’s office)

Gov. Tom Wolf has signed a bill that significantly changes how Pennsylvanians will be able to vote by April 2020.

Flanked by advocates and a handful of lawmakers in the Capitol on Thursday, Wolf said the legislation makes the “most significant” changes to the commonwealth’s elections code in 80 years. He and other speakers said it will expand ballot access for groups including people with disabilities, the elderly, and those who travel often or have unpredictable work schedules.

Here’s what will change:

Now: Only voters who meet certain standards can vote by absentee ballot through the mail.
By April 2020: Any voter will be allowed to use a mail-in ballot. There will also be a permanent list for people who want to vote by mail every election, and ballots can be requested 50 days before an election.

Now: Pennsylvanians must register to vote no later than 30 days before an election.
By April 2020: Pennsylvanians will have up to 15 days before an election to register.

Now: Absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. Friday before Election Day.
By April 2020: Absentee and mail-in ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Now: Voters can check a single box on a ballot to vote for all candidates from a single political party.
By April 2020: Voters will have to select each candidate individually.

“I am proud of this bill because it represents a true bipartisan compromise that advances the rights of every Pennsylvanian,” Wolf said.

Some of Wolf’s fellow Democrats would disagree with that.

Lawmakers, especially those from Philadelphia, opposed the elimination of straight-ticket voting, saying it would harm voters of color in urban areas.

Jason M. Roberts, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in the Capital-Star that straight-ticket voting is “higher in urban counties with large minority populations.”

“These areas are densely populated and as a result the voting precincts are often heavily trafficked on Election Day,” he wrote.

Roberts’ research in North Carolina found that eliminating straight-ticket voting increased wait times the most “in urban areas that have large minority populations.”

“In North Carolina, my research found that in counties with high levels of straight ticket voting in 2012, approximately 4 out every 100 African-American voters who voted in 2012 were deterred from voting in 2016 due to the elimination of the straight-ticket voting option in North Carolina,” he wrote.

Another study done by Austin, Texas-based researchers found eliminating straight-ticket ballots made people less likely to cast down-ballot votes.

“Change is hard,” Wolf said in response to a question about the elimination. “When you have new voting machines, you can sometimes have longer lines. I’m not sure what happened in North Carolina. I’m not sure how they can attribute that to the elimination of straight-party voting.”

He also noted that Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states that currently has the option.

“I think we’re doing what other states have done. I think it’s a change,” Wolf continued. “We will make sure that we do everything we can through the Department of State. I’m sure the parties themselves will do everything they can and candidates will do everything they can to make sure this transition is as smooth as possible. And we have between now and the April [2020] election to make sure that we’re ready for it and prepare for it.

“But I think [this] will make voting more accessible, rather than going in reverse.”

The legislation the governor signed Thursday also provides $90 million for counties to buy new voting machines, as mandated by the Wolf administration, and $4 million for 2020 census outreach.

It has the support of the state American Civil Liberties Union, good-government groups including Common Cause Pennsylvania, and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

“Let’s be as clear as we can: All voters in Pennsylvania will have greater access to the ballot because of this new law,” Elizabeth Randol, the ACLU-PA’s legislative director, said. “In the end, we at the ACLU strongly believe that the ways in which this bill expands access to the ballot outweigh the uncertain outcomes of eliminating the straight ticket option.”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

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.