We need an election law overhaul
HARRISBURG A growing number of states have updated their election laws to make the hub of the democratic process more convenient and voter-friendly, but so far Pennsylvania isn't among them.
Twenty-one states allow online voter registration and three others have passed similar laws that have yet to take effect.
Thirty-six states permit all voters to cast ballots before Election Day and 10 allow voters to register and vote on the same day, all according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Those ideas and others were aired at recent legislative budget hearings. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, promised during his campaign to push for election reforms and acting Secretary of State Pedro Cortes reiterated the administration's willingness to work with legislators toward that goal.
Pennsylvania's last major election-related development was the passage of one of the nation's strictest voter-identification laws, which sought to require nearly all of the 8 million-plus voters to show photo ID at the polls.
The 2012 law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature with no Democratic support, was struck down by a state judge last year and abandoned when then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, decided not to appeal.
"It's a little bit embarrassing to go to the national conferences and listen to what other states are doing. It always seems like we're way behind when it comes to election reform," Cortes, who is in line to become Pennsylvania's top elections official, told members of the House Appropriations Committee.
Cortes, who was also Gov. Ed Rendell's secretary of state, suggested that online registration has the best chance of swift implementation.
"(It) seems to be the one form of election reform that everyone seems to agree would be a benefit to the voters and more so, quite frankly, to the counties," he said.
State officials say the 2002 Pennsylvania Voter Registration Act authorized them to design and use an electronic registration system, but none has been implemented. Lawmakers have introduced at least two bills to establish the online system.
"The administration has not made a final decision on how best to proceed with (online registration) but it remains a priority for us," said Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan.
Doug Hill, director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said some logistical details must be worked out but the counties that run the elections support the change.
"The bottom line is, we do want to reach the same place," Hill said.
Benefits of online registration include enhanced accuracy and savings from reduced reliance on paper forms and labor-intensive data entry. Residents could register to vote from personal computers as long as their driver's licenses or non-driver IDs match PennDOT's records.
Barry Kauffman, director of government reform organization Common Cause Pennsylvania, predicts it would increase voter registration, especially among young people because "they're used to doing almost all their business transactions online."
"Paper registration is still available to anyone who needs it," said David Becker, election initiatives director for The Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia.
The states that allow online registration make up about half of the U.S. population, Becker said.
"This is no longer new," he said. "Arizona started this in 2002."
Two years ago, a bill to authorize online registration was unanimously approved by the state Senate, but it died in the House State Government Committee without reaching the floor.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, the committee's chairman and sponsor of the ill-fated voter ID bill, questioned the administration's authority to implement the electronic system and said such a significant change should be backed up by specific legislation.
"It's a big issue. If it wasn't, it would have already occurred," Metcalfe said.
Asked whether he thought a bill would reach the floor this year, he said: "It's not a high priority."
Another proposal stirring discussion could allow more Pennsylvanians to vote prior to Election Day by casting absentee ballots.
The state constitution spells out excuses for which absentee voting is allowed being unable to get to the polls for work-related reasons, for example. State officials currently limit absentee voting to the reasons cited in the constitution, but some reform-minded activists believe there is case law that could be the basis for legislation to make it available to all voters.
Hill said the county commissioners' group supports "no-excuse" absentee voting.
"If we can find an elegant way around the constitution, we'd pursue it," he said.
Peter Jackson is theCapitol correspondentfor The Associated Press in Harrisburg.