State senators plot election law shake-up

One proposal would get rid of the requirement that voters provide an excuse in order to vote absentee.

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) – A handful of state senators want to upend the way Pennsylvania conducts its elections.

The group–made up of both Republicans and Democrats, many of them senior members–is launching a slate of bills broadly aimed at making it easier to vote.

Complaints about voting laws have been circulating for years, with little action from the state.

“County Commissioners … have been talking about these issues, and more, for a dozen years,” said Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas, who stopped by the unveiling of the new initiative.

“It’s really helpful to see, finally, them coming to fruition,” he added. “Now they still need to be passed–there still needs to be a lot of work done to get them complete.”

Republican Mike Folmer, the Dauphin County-based chair of the Senate’s State Government Committee, is helping spearhead the effort. It came about after a series of public hearings and meetings during the last legislative session.

“The election codes have not been looked at–maybe tweaked a little bit–but never looked at in its fullest for probably about 70 years,” Folmer said. “We saw it as a necessity.”

Three of the proposals are constitutional amendments.

One would get rid of the requirement that voters give an excuse in order to vote absentee–a change that would bring the commonwealth in line with 27 other states. Another would repeal a provision banning federal employees from working polls, and a third would get rid of a sometimes-confusing requirement that judicial retention votes be cast on a separate ballot.

Amendments are difficult to pass. They have to be approved by the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions, with the exact same language, before going to voters for a referendum.

But the reform package includes a list of simple bills, too.

One would widen the window for voters to receive and return absentee ballots, plus allow designated drop boxes for their submission.

Pennsylvania’s tight absentee ballot deadlines have already been contested in state court. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit after the last election, arguing voters could technically follow all the state’s laws but still receive a ballot too late for it to be mailed in on-deadline.

Other bills would let voters join a permanent absentee voting list and create vote centers people can use anywhere in their county, regardless of their designated polling place.

One would raise the vote threshold for a write-in candidate to be elected, and two others would seek to save counties money by reducing the number of ballots pollsters are required to print, and by consolidating smaller precincts.

A spokesman for Governor Tom Wolf said he supports the effort.

Folmer said his chamber hasn’t yet brought their proposals to the House. But asked for comment, GOP House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler indicated he’d likely back at least a few of the measures.

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