Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed an election reform bill into law Thursday. The governor’s website said Act 77 of 2019 is “the most significant improvement to Pennsylvania’s elections in more than 80 years.” The bipartisan legislation — the product of a compromise that was opposed by some Democrats — “takes effect for the April 2020 primary election and makes Pennsylvania a national leader with voter-friendly election reforms,” the governor’s website said. “This is the biggest change to our elections in generations and will strengthen our democracy by removing barriers to the voting booth and encouraging more people to vote,” Wolf said in a statement.
In Pennsylvania, election reform has been a long time coming.
We wouldn’t go as far as the Wolf administration in saying that Act 77 makes the commonwealth a national leader in voter-friendly reform. But we’re nevertheless elated by this legislation’s passage, and we laud the governor and the Republican leaders with whom he negotiated for not allowing the perfect — or the partisan — to be the enemy of the good.
We understand the concerns of some Democratic lawmakers about the closed-door discussions that led up to the bill’s passage. The public’s business should be conducted in the light of day.
We’re relieved that a last-minute provision that would have shielded dark campaign money failed to make it into this bill’s final version — largely because news coverage by The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication, and Spotlight PA, a news organization powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer, shamed lawmakers into backing down.
And we see virtue in the compromise that allowed for this bill’s passage. Its reforms are necessary and important.
Here are its basics:
— It creates a new option that allows any voter to cast a ballot by mail and to be placed on a list to permanently receive a ballot application by mail.
Previously, Pennsylvania voters had to provide a reason for why they needed an absentee ballot. That no longer will be the case. This is no-excuse mail-in voting, and it’s a real step forward.
— This new law also gives voters up to 50 days before an election to request and submit their mail-in or absentee ballots — the longest vote-by-mail period in the country, according to the Wolf administration.
It also extends mail-in and absentee ballot submission deadlines to 8 p.m. on Election Day, rather than 5 p.m. the Friday before an election. That was the most restrictive deadline in the country, the governor’s office said. It noted that Pennsylvanians submitted 195,378 absentee ballots in 2018, but 8,162 — more than 4% — missed the deadline and were rejected (the national average is 2%).
— Crucially, the new law gives Pennsylvanians 15 more days to register to vote. They previously had to register 30 days before an election; now the deadline will be 15 days before Election Day.
— And Act 77 authorizes a $90 million bond to reimburse counties for 60% of the costs of replacing their voting systems.
In 2016, Russian intelligence agents searched for vulnerabilities in Pennsylvania’s computer systems and those of at least 20 other states — it was a preliminary effort targeting voter registration systems. No Pennsylvania voter rolls were compromised, but the personal information of Illinois voters was stolen. And U.S. intelligence officials warned that hostile foreign actors including the Russians would strike again.
So we supported Wolf’s insistence that counties strengthen their voting systems, particularly as most Pennsylvania voters were casting ballots on machines that didn’t produce a paper trail. Now, the counties will get financial help from the state to strengthen security.
Hopefully, this will relieve some of the financial pressure on counties that already bought or leased new voting machines. Lancaster County’s contract to lease new machines, for instance, will cost nearly $3 million over five years.
As Marc Levy of The Associated Press reported in an article published last week in LNP | LancasterOnline, “Republicans who control the state Legislature dropped their opposition to Wolf’s insistence that counties buy new voting machines and secured their top priority, eliminating the ballot option for straight party-ticket voting.”
Democrats who voted against the bill said it didn’t “go far enough to expand voter access and protested the elimination of straight party-ticket voting as a convenience used particularly by lower-income, urban and minority voters,” the AP’s Levy reported.
He noted: “Democrats in Pennsylvania outnumber Republicans by a five-to-four margin, and Republicans pushed to eliminate the option amid worries that down-ballot Republican candidates will suffer from a suburban voter backlash against President Donald Trump next year.”
We’re no fans of straight-ticket voting. As we wrote in October 2016, “Party affiliation offers only an aerial view of where a candidate stands; we as voters should take closer looks.” It was our stance then, and now, that voters “ought to vet candidates who, if elected, will be awarded decent to handsome salaries and benefit packages, paid for with taxpayer dollars.”
And we think it’s condescending to suggest that lower-income and minority voters don’t take voting seriously enough to do their homework before coming to their polling places.
Besides, voters still will be able to choose a full slate of candidates in a single party if they choose. They just won’t be able to push a single button marked “Democrat” or “Republican.” The whole process still will take mere seconds.
None of these changes will affect Tuesday’s municipal election (please do remember to vote).
But next year, when Pennsylvania is playing a key role in choosing the next president, voters will find it easier than ever to register to vote and cast their ballots.
The birthplace of democracy hasn’t always made participating in that democracy easy. At long last, that’s about to change.