HARRISBURG — The General Assembly on Tuesday passed a landmark election reform bill that will help counties pay to replace voting machines ahead of the 2020 election while making a variety of other changes to election law.
Senate Bill 421 would eliminate straight-party voting as a ballot option, create a 50-day period for people to vote by mail before the election, and reduce the amount of time between the election and the deadlines to register to vote or apply for absentee ballots.
Gov. Tom Wolf intends to sign the legislation. In July, he vetoed similar legislation that attempted to eliminate straight-party voting without including many of the other reforms included in Senate Bill 421.
“This is a major advancement for elections in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. “While I understand the concerns about eliminating the straight party ticket option, this bipartisan bill creates the most significant improvements to our elections in more than 80 years.”
The legislation authorizes the state to borrow up to $90 million to help counties pay for the voting machines. It will also provide $4 million in funding to try to make sure as many Pennsylvanians are counted in the 2020 Census as possible.
Proponents describe Senate Bill 421 as the most significant election reform in decades, but some Democratic lawmakers dismissed the changes as modest improvements that aren’t enough to offset the perceived harm of eliminating straight-party voting.
The measure passed the House by a vote of 138-61. A few hours later it passed the state Senate as well, by a vote of 35-14.
State Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Philadelphia, said the legislation should have included in-person early voting. The move to allow people to mail in ballots doesn’t provide the level of convenience that opening the polls on extra days ahead of Election Day would.
“That would be a freedom for voters I could get behind,” she said.
The measure moves the deadline to register to vote from 30 days prior to the election to 15 days before the election.
Under current law, people must apply for an absentee ballot at least one week before the election. Senate Bill 421 would allow people to apply for absentee ballots and return them right up to Election Day.
“People expect more convenience,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County. “This bill delivers.”
Proponents of the change said Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that have single-party voting as an option on the ballot.
“Straight-party voting is an antiquated practice that works to encourage voters to blindly choose a blank box at the top of a ballot,” said House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. “The vast majority of states removed straight-party voting years ago, believing the electorate has the right to choose people over party, and let their personal beliefs lead them in the voting booth, not just a one-party box.”
Eliminating straight-party voting seems like an effort by Republicans to “tilt the odds to their advantage in 2020,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a coalition of 41 advocacy and community organizations working to update Pennsylvania’s election system. “The elimination of straight-ticket party voting, however, is a serious problem.”
The other reforms in the legislation “are huge changes” that will make it easier for people to vote, especially those who may not be able to get to the polling places on Election Day, he said.
Pennsylvania joins 31 states with no-excuse voting by mail options and becomes the 12th state that automatically mails either an absentee ballot or ballot application to residents who have signed up to receive a ballot every election, according to information from the governor’s office. By cutting the registration deadlines in half, Pennsylvania will have shorter registration deadlines than 24 states, according to the governor’s office.