Pennsylvania’s Election Day is still nearly two months away, on Nov. 5, but the last day you can register to vote for this election is Oct. 7. It’s not a presidential election or even a congressional midterm, but there are state and municipal elections — all of them important to each of us — on the November ballot.
When he administered the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony at Lancaster County Courthouse this summer, Judge James P. Cullen said this to the new U.S. citizens: “We are extremely pleased that you have chosen to join us. You have an opportunity, now, as a citizen of the United States, to take full part in our political life. ... Please register and vote.”
The judge’s advice goes for everyone.
Too often, American democracy breaks down when it comes to actually voting. And we find that hard to understand. Voting is our superpower as citizens.
As we have noted before, only about 56% of voting-age Americans cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election. That percentage puts our nation toward the bottom of the list of highly developed democratic countries.
Turnout tends to be even lower for so-called “off-year” elections, when the White House and Congress are not being decided. But there should be no “off years” for a democracy. We should never skip or miss a vote.
Everyone who is eligible in Lancaster County should make sure they are registered to vote by the Oct. 7 deadline. And who is eligible? Here are the guidelines:
— You must be at least 18 years old on or before Nov. 5.
— You must be a citizen of the United States and a resident of Pennsylvania and your election district for at least 30 days before Nov. 5.
November’s ballot will include state and local judgeships (some of which are retention elections), Lancaster County government offices, and municipal government and school board races. Some of these races are more contested than others (which is a gripe for another day), but all are important to our everyday lives.
Jonathan Marks, the state’s deputy secretary for Elections and Commissions, explained the importance of local elections in an online essay: “School board decisions affect the quality of our public schools and how much we pay in property taxes.”
Marks continued: “Local and county officials ... set policies and make decisions that influence everything from the condition of our streets and the safety of our neighborhoods to the value of our homes. (And) even if you don’t have children or own a home, local officials affect your day-to-day life through their decisions on public safety, public transportation, trash removal, drinking water quality and many other civic concerns.”
November’s ballot will also include a proposed amendment to the state constitution to grant certain rights to crime victims, including “timely notice and opportunity to take part in public proceedings” and “reasonable protection from the accused.” Having a voice on that issue is another reason to vote.
Those who still need to register have several options:
— Go online to register.votesPA.com. (Have your Pennsylvania driver’s license or PennDOT ID card handy. If you have any questions as you navigate the online form, you can call 877-VOTESPA or 877-868-3772.)
— Blank voter registration forms can also be printed from that website. If you have friends or neighbors who can’t get online, you can provide them with these forms, which can then be completed and mailed.
— Register in person at the Lancaster County Voter Registration Office, located in Suite 117 at 150 N. Queen St. in Lancaster, or at any PennDOT photo license center while applying for or renewing your driver’s license.
Registering to vote and encouraging everyone you know who is eligible to vote to do the same will strengthen our democracy.
Meanwhile, we applaud this recent news: Pennsylvanians who will not be able to vote in person this fall can apply online for absentee ballots for the first time. (You must first be registered to vote, of course.)
“Applicants will need a PennDOT driver license or ID number, although that is expected to change next year,” The Associated Press reported. “The program will also be expanded in 2020 to military and oversees voters.”
The online option adds convenience to the existing (and somewhat balky) absentee system, which requires applicants to fill out paper forms and deliver them by hand or mail them to county elections offices.
Absentee voters will still have to mail or hand-deliver completed ballots to elections offices by 5 p.m. Nov. 1.
As we continue to wish for significant election reforms in Pennsylvania — and G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young explain why that remains frustratingly unlikely — at least this is one small area in which progress has been made.
Next, we’d like to see “no-excuse” absentee ballots allowed in Pennsylvania. Currently, absentee ballots are only for voters who are sick, disabled, out of town on business on Election Day, or attending out-of-state colleges.