To Pennsylvania state Rep. Pam DeLissio, the number of eligible voters who turn out at the polls is embarrassing.
“It’s under 25 percent in the two counties I represent for the most part,” said DeLissio, a Democrat who represents Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. “And in a presidential year, maybe it will hit 50 percent.”
DeLissio spoke as the Pennsylvania House and Senate State Government committees met jointly to discuss ways to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots and increase the poll numbers.
Much of the two-hour roundtable focused on no-excuse absentee ballots. Pennsylvania does not offer early voting, and absentee ballots are only handed out to voters for certain reasons, including sickness, out-of-state military service or being away during election day. Voters must return the ballots by 5 p.m. the Friday before the election. A push is being made to allow voters to cast absentee ballots for any reason.
“Providing the opportunity for any voter who needs to cast an absentee ballot will ensure all citizens’ voices are heard,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator of Keystone Votes and deputy director of Pennsylvania Voice. “Voting by mail without excuse also protects access to our democracy for people with disabilities and senior citizens, without unnecessary hurdles or privacy invasions, as well as those who work long and non-traditional hours and may have trouble making it to polling places because of work or family commitments.”
The concept was supported by Tim Benyo, chief clerk of the office of Lehigh County Elections and Voter Registration, and Joe Kantz, chairman of the Snyder County Board of Elections and co-chair of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s Election Reform Committee.
The participants also discussed moving the deadline to return absentee ballots and possibly allowing voters to return them on Election Day. The roadblock may be Pennsylvania’s election law, which has changed little since 1937.
“There are probably solutions to those practical problems, provided that we can get out from under some of the very specific statutory requirements that frankly were passed at a time when, I don’t think a legislator in 1937 could have possibly imagined where we would be in terms of technology these days,” said Jonathan Marks, deputy secretary for elections and commissions for the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Other issues included the printing of ballots. Election officials consider previous elections when deciding how many ballots to print. Some counties have on-demand printers that can provide additional ballots as needed. And while those printers cost money, they could save a county money in the long run, Marks said.
“I think having those fail safes in place and finding the money to make those kinds of investments is important because it pays for itself,” Marks said.
The meeting comes a week after Gov. Tom Wolf announced that voters could apply for an absentee ballot online instead of mailing it in to the elections office or returning it in-person. The website, votesPA.com/ApplyAbsentee, went live the same day of the joint meeting.