Lawmaking has often been compared to sausage making. One may relish eating it but not want to know how it is produced. Never has this been truer than watching the Pennsylvania General Assembly tackle modern Election Reform.
As September lurches toward October, the legislature has a precious few weeks left in 2019 to decide a number of crucial election reform measures. Few if any of them will get serious consideration next year since 2020 is an election year- indeed a presidential election year. The productivity of the Pennsylvania legislature, already falling sharply amidst our chronically polarized politics, almost always plummets in an election year. 2020 notably will not be an exception.
It’s 2019 or nothing!
Already this session has brought some focus upon electoral reform. Prior to the summer recess, the legislature passed a measure that would have banned straight ticket voting, a practice that allows a voter to cast a single vote for all the candidates of the same party. Nine states currently allow the practice including Pennsylvania.
Alas, partisan politics from both parties erased this one. The measure was passed by Republicans in a legislature they control with strong opposition from minority Democrats. They opposed it primarily because it benefits Republicans electorally; Republicans favored it primarily because it benefits them electorally. Unsurprisingly, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf took out the veto pen and sent the bill into legislative oblivion, citing among other problems that …“eliminating straight-ticket voting would harm voters.”
So, one down but many remain possible: all important to ordinary Pennsylvanians concerned with ballot integrity.
Among the list of possible election reforms, the notion of moving presidential primary day earlier in the election calendar has been a perpetual issue going back decades. Despite repeated previous efforts to give Pennsylvania a relevant presidential primary, voting day stubbornly remains in late April, almost always too late to matter. Legislation pending would move the date earlier into March for 2020. A parallel proposal would also move the voting date into March, but would not go into effect until the 2024 election.
The situation with the late presidential primary is an outrage. Pennsylvania is one of perhaps three key battleground states that will determine the 2020 Electoral College winner. Yet, it plays no role in the nomination of either party’s presidential candidates. In fact, the state has not been really relevant in any nomination since 1984.
One might well wonder why the 5th largest (tied with Illinois) Electoral College prize would do this to itself. But in Harrisburg, it’s not a mystery. In the legislature both parties like the late date just where it is – so their own primary campaigns won’t need to vie with a meaningful and bitter presidential primary – nor deal with annoying filing dates that would be accelerated. Translation: a pox on meaningful presidential primaries.
There remains a number of other election reforms before the legislature. Included are the following four proposals:
1. Allowing unaffiliated voters, meaning voters who are not registered in a political party, to cast votes in any party primary;
2. Permitting automatic registration. For example, if one signs up for a driver’s license, that person would automatically be registered to vote unless expressly opting out;
3. Enabling same day voter registration which would allow a potential voter to register to vote on the same day as the election. It would remove the current requirement that voter registration must take place 30 days before the actual election date;
4. Allowing voters to cast an absentee ballot for any reason, known as “no-excuse” absentee voting. Voters now choosing to vote by absentee must meet several legal qualifications.
Generally, Democrats like these reforms because many are likely to aid Democratic turnout, especially in urban areas. Conversely, Republicans generally oppose them because they would help Democratic turnout more than their own. Perhaps the one exception to this generalization would be no-excuse absentee voting where the salient issue here is the widespread confusion over absentee ballot filing deadlines.
Election reform in Pennsylvania is now a standoff between Republicans and Democrats. Entrenched Republican control of the state legislature means they are not likely to go very far with many of the election changes, while Democratic Governor Tom Wolf will veto any changes he does not support.
But there was recently some good news auguring new positive movement toward election reforms. Recently Governor Wolf announced that Pennsylvanian’s will now be able to apply online for absentee ballots for the November election beginning mid-September – potentially making it less burdensome to vote for thousands of Pennsylvanians. Both parties applauded the news with the Republican Majority Leader Jake Corman calling it “a good step toward increasing access to absentee ballots,” while additional reforms are still needed.
We may not yet see the light at the end of the tunnel but at least we now see the tunnel.