Historic Election Reform Approved in Pennsylvania
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Historic Election Reform Approved in Pennsylvania

October 31, 2019


Contact: David Thornburgh
Committee of Seventy, President and CEO
dthornburgh@seventy.org; 215-439-0879 c

Sweeping changes to state election law set a foundation for further reform

HARRISBURG, PA – Governor Tom Wolf signed into law today Election Code legislation, Senate Bill 421, that includes the most substantial improvements to the code since it was written in 1937. Prominent upgrades include, in particular, the ability of any Pennsylvania voter to cast a ballot by mail and with a less restrictive deadline for submission, and a shorter voter registration deadline from 30 days before the election to 15 days.

“Pennsylvania election law has lagged farther and farther behind other states in terms of both voter access and election integrity,” stated Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh. “This package is a monumental leap forward from the status quo.”

Pennsylvania’s current absentee ballot application and submission deadlines are among the tightest in the nation, with applications due on the Tuesday before the election at 5 p.m. and the ballots due on Friday at 5 p.m. -- just 72 hours later. Postmarks are not honored. Starting with the April 2020 presidential primary, absentee ballots will be accepted up until 8 p.m. on Election Day, a notable extension. Bipartisan consensus around absentee ballot reform grew over the past several years, especially in the face of mounting evidence that thousands of mail-in ballots have been rejected after not being received in time by county election officials. The issue spurred the ACLU to file a lawsuit in November 2018 to compel the state to create more reasonable deadlines.

The new law also eliminates straight ticket voting, now requiring that voters cast votes for individual candidates in a general election. The reform was the focus of the original Senate Bill 421, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola (D) and approved with bipartisan support by the Senate State Government Committee earlier this year. The provision has drawn concern from Democratic lawmakers, who cite the possibility of longer lines and more undervotes as a result.

“Seventy has traditionally opposed straight ticket voting, given its heavy use by party machinery going back to the early 1900s. Even in next week’s election, the Democratic City Committee  has made it clear to voters that they should hit one button and be on their way” said Thornburgh. “But long wait times at polls is always a concern in presidential election years. Advising voters of the new mail-in option and encouraging them to use it should be a priority going into 2020 as a means to mitigate this risk.”

In addition to other adjustments to current election law, the package includes authorization for the state to borrow $90 million to support counties’ purchase of new voting systems – critical funding for county governments as they have moved ahead in procuring new, secure systems with auditable paper trails. Negotiations between the Governor’s office and lawmakers also yielded $4 million for Census outreach in preparation for next spring’s decennial count.

“Altogether, this strong new law offers a great deal for Pennsylvania voters,” declared Thornburgh. “But it also sets a foundation for numerous other election modernization reforms that could finally bring the commonwealth into the vanguard for the act of voting. For a state with our civic history and culture, that’s where we should be.”

Not included in the legislation are reforms around the political map-drawing process or that would open up Pennsylvania’s closed primaries to unaffiliated, independent voters. Seventy and other good government advocates have been lobbying lawmakers to prioritize these issues, and to return to them in earnest in the spring.

“Public sentiment -- expressed at public hearings, town halls and through multiple polls and surveys -- could not be more clear: Pennsylvanians expect redistricting reform that moves map-drawing power away from elected officials, out into the open, and to the citizens,” Thornburgh asserted. “The reform approved today is a landmark achievement. We look forward to working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers on redistricting and primary reform next year.”

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The Committee of Seventy is an independent nonprofit advocate for better politics and better government in Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. For more information, see www.seventy.org.