HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law on Thursday election reforms he described as the most significant changes to the state’s election code since it was written more than 80 years ago.
The measure, Act 77, includes substantial reforms to make it easier for people to vote, provisions that were absent from a similar election bill vetoed by Wolf just three months ago, advocates said.
The new law provides more time for people to register to vote by moving the deadline from 30 days prior to the election to 15 days and more time for people to submit absentee ballots. Voters can now return their absentee ballots up until Election Day instead of the Friday before the vote.
It also creates a 50-day window before the election for voters to vote by mail. Unlike absentee ballots, in which voters must explain why they can’t make it to the polls, the mail-in voting option will be available to anyone for any reason.
“This bill makes voting more convenient and more secure for millions of Pennsylvanians and continues my commitment to modernizing our elections,” Wolf said, adding that it “will strengthen our democracy by removing barriers to the voting booth and encouraging more people to vote.”
The measure also eliminates the ballot’s straight party ticket voting option, and will provide counties with $90 million to help pay for new paper-ballot voting machines ahead of the 2020 election, and provide $4 million to pay for efforts to make sure that the U.S. Census counts as many Pennsylvanians as possible.
Wolf vetoed an election reform bill in July that would have eliminated the straight party ticket voting option while providing the counties their voting machine funding.
The vetoed legislation, Senate Bill 48, lacked the other reforms, including the mail-in voting option and the move to provide more time to register to vote.
“I wouldn’t say it was a win for Wolf, I would say it was a big win for Pennsylvanians,” said Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause, an election reform advocacy group based in Harrisburg. “The veto helped make this package better than before.”
Democratic lawmakers had complained the eliminating straight party voting on the ballots could lead to lines in busy polling places.
But Elizabeth Randol, director of government affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization concluded that the reforms to make voting easier made the benefits of Act 77 outweigh the concerns about eliminating straight-party voting as a ballot option.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, the chairman of the House state government committee, said that in negotiations about the legislation, the governor was most adamant that it include the change to provide more time for people to register to vote.
The move to allow anyone to vote by mail may largely make absentee voting redundant, Everett said. Lawmakers left absentee voting – which is available for college students, those with disabilities, those who work away from the municipality where they’d vote, and those serving in the military -- on the books because the state Constitution mentions absentee voting so it was easier to create the new mail-in voting option than to try to amend the rules for absentee voting or completely eliminate it as an option.
Wolf said that prior to Act 77 Pennsylvania was one of just nine states that offered no early-voting option. The others are: Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and South Carolina, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Delaware, New York and Virginia all enacted voting reforms to offer early voting earlier this year.
Pennsylvania’s new 50-day window for mail-in voting will be the longest mail-in voting period offered by any state, the governor said.
The changes are expected to be in place for the April 2020 primary, he said.
The mail-in voting option may be the biggest reform in the legislation, said Joe Kantz, a Snyder County commissioner who serves on the election reform committee for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
“That’s something CCAP has been lobbying for,” he said.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County, said that with the mail-in voting option, people will be able to research candidates at home or with friends while they complete their ballots.
“The kitchen table becomes the voting booth,” she said.
Secretary of State Kathryn Boockvar said that the state has begun allowing people to both register to vote and apply for absentee ballots online. Voters will be able to request a mail-in ballot online, as well, she said.
That website is: www.pavoterservices.pa.gov.