There’s bipartisan agreement Pa.’s absentee voting law is broken. Will the Legislature act?

(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Faced with a smorgasbord of potential electoral reforms at an informal meeting Monday, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers gravitated toward expanding Pennsylvania’s restrictive and archaic absentee ballot rules.

“I hope we can finally finalize a plan to bring no-excuse absentee ballots to Pennsylvania,” Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, said at the start of the Capitol roundtable.

The statement, from one of Harrisburg’s biggest champions of electoral reforms, came as the House returns from summer recess Tuesday. The Senate will be back in session Sept. 23.

Capitol insiders have signaled that election reform will be on the autumn agenda. But after Monday’s joint meeting of the House and Senate State Government committees, Folmer was hesitant to commit to a deadline for reforming state law to allow anyone to vote by absentee ballot. 

He only promised to give passing no-excuse absentee voting by 2020 a “college try.”

Both election reform advocates and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, a group representing Pennsylvania’s 67 county governments — including their boards of elections — agreed that the time is right to approve no-excuse absentee ballots.

“Everybody wants elections to be more accessible, and we want more people to be involved,” Jim Kantz, a Snyder County commissioner, and co-chair of CCAP’s election committee, said.

Under current state law, voters who meet certain standards must request an absentee ballot from their county elections’ office by the Tuesday before Election Day. They must then return their ballots to the county by 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day.

The law, among the most restrictive in the nation, is under a legal challenge from the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thousands of ballots in Philadelphia and its collar counties arrived after the November 2018 deadline and were not counted, the Inquirer reported

While there is agreement that absentee voting needs to be reformed, Folmer said there would be disagreements over the deadline for ballots to reach a county election office.

The County Commissioners Association is not taking a position. But lawmakers expressed a desire to have election tallies nearly complete on election night. On Monday, they floated an 8 p.m. Election Night deadline for absentee ballots.

But Ray Murphy, president of the state electoral reform advocacy group Keystone Votes, is dreaming even bigger. He said absentee ballots should be able to arrive one week after Election Day and still be counted. 

That’s currently the deadline for absentee ballots from a military or overseas voter.

While some lawmakers raised concerns about slowing counting speed, Murphy said tech could erase the question. With electronic ballot scanners that take away the time and potential errors of hand-counting an increased number of absentee ballots, it could be a non-issue going forward.

Pointing to other states, Murphy said that absentee ballots typically trickle in before Election Day, rather than coming in all at once. 

“Who wants to be in the uncomfortable position of saying someone’s vote doesn’t count because the post office didn’t get the ballot there soon enough?” Murphy said after the roundtable.

In order to expand absentee voting, Murphy, the County Commissioners Association, and lawmakers all agreed the state would need to eliminate a provision that lets voters cancel their absentee ballot and vote on Election Day. 

Removing the provision would simplify voter rolls and ease counting mailed-in ballots on election night, they said.

Monday’s meeting also included brief discussions of a measure to limit the number of ballots printed for Election Day, as well as establishing a bipartisan voting law reform commission.

The General Assembly took a run at electoral reforms during the spring budget debate, sending Gov. Tom Wolf an omnibus bill that tied limited absentee ballot reforms and restrictions on the number of ballots printed to $90 million in money for new, secure voting machines.

How one bill could fund voting machines, change Pennsylvania’s elections, and tick off Democrats

 

While the new machine funding was necessitated by a decree from the Wolf administration, Democrats raised concerns about the bill’s elimination of straight-ticket voting.

Wolf vetoed the bill in July, citing those concerns in his veto message. He then authorized a state economic development authority to float $90 million in bonds to replace the lost money.

But Wolf’s use of gubernatorial prerogative rankled Republicans, and the veto was still weighing  on Folmer Monday.

Whether on the number of ballots to be printed or straight-ticket voting, Folmer said he thought there was agreement with Democrats earlier — though the vetoed bill passed with just seven Democratic votes between the House and Senate.

An early version of the Senate bill to eliminate straight ticket voting was approved unanimously in committee as well, before it passed in a near-partyline floor vote.

Folmer said he hopes more communication will lead to bipartisan solutions on electoral reforms in the future.

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