Pennsylvania has done little to change the way it runs its elections for decades but that may soon change. Interest is at an all-time high in the General Assembly in reforming the election process to engage more voter participation.
Between a news conference and a House committee meeting, Tuesday shined a spotlight on the dozens of Republican and Democratic-backed bills tackling reforms that expand the ways citizens can vote, when they can vote, where they can vote as well as other electoral changes.
Advocacy groups who have been harping for years about the need for government to step up and make sure it voting access, process and system work for all voters are feeling optimistic their calls are finally being heard.
“It is time for voting reform to happen in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, at a Capitol Rotunda rally on Tuesday in support of election reform bills pending in the House and Senate.
Already, the Senate State Government Committee this session has sent proposed constitutional amendments to the full Senate for consideration that would allow government employees to work as poll workers and another that seeks to discontinue the requirement that judicial retentions appear on a separate column or page of the ballot.
“It’s incredibly encouraging that lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle continue to engage in meaningful discussions about proposals that would update Pennsylvania’s election laws,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes. “The challenge is maintaining that momentum.”
Murphy’s group, a nonpartisan coalition of 41 organizations working on various voting reforms, said today’s work schedules, educational pursuits, and family commitments make it necessary to update the state’s election laws so none are penalized by what he calls “an archaic system that creates barriers to voting.”
To get an idea of how archaic some of the rules are in the state’s 82-year-old election code Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, told PennLive, “In our current code, there is a requirement that every polling place have a lantern as a source of light. A lantern. That is problematic.”
He is working on a comprehensive bill that touches on a wide gamut of election processes and practices such as moving to a randomized ballot position so no one candidate holds the advantage of having the top ballot spot, early voting, open primaries, and bringing more transparency to information collected by county election boards.
“We’re in 2019,” Solomon said. “I think we can do better than that.”
Gov. Tom Wolf also has identified some election reforms as his priorities. They include same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration when someone interacts with a state agency, redistricting reform, and campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of special interests in Harrisburg. His spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor would be open to other ideas as well.
Given all the interest in making changes to the electoral system, House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said this conversation that began in his committee on Tuesday is not one that he intends to allow to stall out before a bill makes it out of his committee.
“We’re going to do this,” Everett said. “On the other hand, there’s no rush. I don’t see that were on a deadline. We’re going to work through the process.”
It’s obvious already achieving compromises on some issues will be more difficult than on one like eliminating the straight party voting option that already has bipartisan support in both chambers.
A bill to remove schools from the list of public buildings to be used for polling places that Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-Northampton County, is offering to protect students and staff safety, however, is a different story.
Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery County, thinks schools should take priority over other possible polling place locations.
“Those buildings are equipped for handicapped accessibility, for parking issues, for restroom issues, and our children should be part of this process,” he said, during the House committee discussion. “I think we’re really doing a disservice in our communities if we don’t use our schools because a lot of senior citizens will also say, ‘what goes on in those buildings. I’ve never been in them.’ This gives you an opportunity also to feature these buildings that cost a lot of money in our communities.”
While some prefer to keep the nomination selection process under control of the party faithful, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, is among those championing that idea.
Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the House State Government Committee, agrees with him. “Open primaries would be healthy for this democracy,” Boyle said. “The growing trend in American politics is the polarization and it’s partially due to us being so influenced by the primary system.”
But Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon County, suggested removing the requirement for recording voter’s party affiliation altogether and moving to “ a jungle primary like California does and the top two finishers go on to a compete in the general regardless of their party affiliation.”
Another bill that is likely to draw controversy has been offered by Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Lycoming County, who wants to require voters produce some form of identification when they show up the polls. The General Assembly has already gone down this path that resulted in passing a law in 2012 that the courts struck down as unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, the Senate State Government Committee also plans to spend the summer working on finding the sweet spot on election-related bills with hopes of moving some to the full Senate for consideration before year’s end, said Fred Sembach, chief of staff to committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County.
But their work won’t stop there. While aware the House is just as active on election reforms, Sembach said, “We have to find a way to bring it all together so we truly have a bicameral, bipartisan consensus on some issues and where we don’t, continue discussions.”