By Chris Comisac
Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG (Oct. 29) – Not since the 1930s has Pennsylvania made far-ranging changes to its election laws, but several changes are coming after the General Assembly on Tuesday sent legislation to Gov. Tom Wolf for his expected signature.

On Tuesday afternoon, a bipartisan 138-61 vote of the state House of Representatives returned Senate Bill 421 to the Senate, which later in the day voted 35-14 (eight Democrats joining all 27 Republicans) to agree with changes made to the bill by the House during the past week.

“This is probably the most historic reform bill we’ve done, not only in my time, but in decades,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, who noted SB421 is the culmination of a process that started in June 2017, when committee meetings were held during a 27-month period to discuss a variety of issue related to modernizing Pennsylvania’s elections.

“Ultimately, it’s the most significant modernization of our Election Code in decades,” said Corman.

Added House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, in remarks issued following the House vote, “This bill was not written to benefit one party or the other, or any one candidate or single election. It was developed over a multi-year period, with input from people of different backgrounds and regions of Pennsylvania. It serves to preserve the integrity of every election and lift the voice of every voter in the Commonwealth.”

Wolf echoed those sentiments in a statement issued following the Senate vote.

“This is a major advancement for elections in Pennsylvania,” said the Governor. “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. Pennsylvania has gone from collectively being the state least friendly to voters to a national leader in voting and election security reforms. It’s a giant leap forward that makes voting more convenient for millions of Pennsylvanians and improves our election security.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Wolf had a different reaction to an omnibus Election Code bill (Senate Bill 48) containing many of SB421’s components, but not all of them. SB48 was passed by the General Assembly in late June and vetoed by Wolf in early July.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was limited debate on the House floor before the chamber’s final vote.

A few Democrats again registered their opposition to the elimination of straight party ticket voting, and they, for the most part, dismissed the bill’s many reforms, including the bill’s provisions to create a new process for mail-in voting, or, as described by proponents of the bills, no-excuse absentee ballot voting.

“I do recognize that there are a few minor reforms in the bill, however I object to taking away freedoms from voters,” said Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Philadelphia. “Under current law, voters can decide whether or not to split their ticket or vote straight party. Republicans can vote straight party, Democrats can vote straight party, and voters can also decide to go up and down the ballot. No reason has been given as to why we would take away the right of choice to Pennsylvania voters.”

“I understand that we’re allowing days – not a lot of time – for mail-in voting, outside of current law” Davidson continued. “But I contend that mail-in voting is not early voting – the two are not the same. The ability to go into a voting booth and vote privately on day with your peers is not the same as trying to figure out a mail-in ballot in your home and with other people around, other distractions – it’s a difference.”

“If this bill contained early voting – real early voting, extra days on the calendar besides the 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on one voting day – that would be a freedom to our voters that I could get behind,” said Davidson. “But right now, this is very little reform, and right now we need to be able to increase accessibility for voters, to incentivize voter participation, and this bill, unfortunately, falls short.”

Over in the Senate, a Democrat, Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County, offered a different perspective on SB421.

“In a society where convenience is emphasized – where you can shop in your living room and within 24 hours a box shoes up at your doorstep – our voting process is finally catching up,” said Boscola, who is SB421’s prime sponsor (the original bill focused solely on eliminating straight party ticket voting).

She explained during her floor remarks: “In my opinion, passing this omnibus election code bill will improve our democracy here in Pennsylvania. The bill makes our elections more secure by helping to pay for new voting machines with paper trails. The bill makes registering to vote easier by extending the time to register to 15 days before an election. The makes elections more about candidates than about the parties by eliminating the straight party ticket voting option. And, by moving the deadline for absentee ballots from the Friday before the election until the day of the election, we’ll definitely ensure that more votes will be counted. This bill makes it easier for people to vote by allowing a ‘no-excuse’ mail-in option.

“By any objective measure, passing this bill is in the best interest of all Pennsylvania voters – and, in the end, that’s our job as legislators. It’s our responsibility to set aside partisanship and govern in the best interests of all Pennsylvanians.”

She noted the bill doesn’t include every reform she’d like – such as same-day voter registration, allowing registered independents to vote in primary elections and early voting, the bill improves voter access, and “will allow a living room or a kitchen table to be a polling place.”

“Making voter easier cannot be bad for our democracy,” said Boscola. “Think about it, at this time next year, people can be voting in their living rooms.”

She said elderly and disabled individuals won’t have to worry about finding transportation to a polling site on Election Day, and working parents won’t have to worry about finding time to vote “because he or she can have their ballot delivered right to their home.”

“In fact, some might gather together to discuss candidates on the ballot, and discuss what they know about them, around the dining room table,” Boscola said, noting those discussions could lead voters to do more research about candidates. “I think that’s kinda cool.”

“I believe the voters are the big winners with Senate Bill 421,” concluded Boscola.

Boscola was one of eight Senate Democrats to vote for the bill (joined by Sens. Costa, D-Allegheny, Dinniman, D-Chester, Haywood, D-Philadelphia, Iovino, D-Allegheny, Kearney, D-Delaware, Schwank, D-Berks, and Yudichak, D-Luzerne), but the floor debate was fairly similar to that of the House, with most Democrats arguing against what they categorized as haste in making many changes to the state’s election laws ahead of a 2020 election cycle that will already be hectic and confusing because of new voting machines being pressed into service statewide during a highly anticipated presidential election.

As House Democrats did earlier in the day, Senate Democrat speakers focused on the elimination of straight party ticket voting. Prior to SB421’s Senate floor consideration, Senate Democrats in the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee unsuccessfully offered 15 amendments to SB421, with many of them focused on campaign finance reform – something Republicans suggested should be addressed in a separate bill since SB421’s subject matter relates to election modernization and reform – and a few similar to those defeated in the House on Monday evening.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) has been hoping the state would help counties pay for the new voting machines the state is requiring them to purchase, with the overall tab estimates by CCAP to be approximately $150 million. They were left waiting through the summer after the veto of SB48, which included authorization for the state to borrow $90 million to help with those costs.

It now appears those hopes will be met, with the organization happy with the SB421’s contents, which include the aforementioned $90 million in state borrowing.

“The commitment of $90 million is crucial for counties,” said CCAP spokesman Ken Kroski on Tuesday afternoon.

“On balance, the bill accomplishes counties’ top priority for 2019, to achieve state funding to reimburse counties for the costs of purchasing new voting equipment under the requirements of the Stein settlement agreement,” explained Kroski, noting the lawsuit settlement Pennsylvania reached with former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. The mass replacement of state’s voting machines was prompted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reaching an out-of-court settlement regarding a lawsuit filed by Stein, with part of the settlement having the Commonwealth agree to begin using paper ballots in 2020, with automatic audits of ballots beginning in 2022. Stein sued two other states – Michigan and Wisconsin – with those states’ courts dismissing Stein’s lawsuits.

“In addition, it [SB421] includes several other election reforms sought by counties, including reducing the number of ballots that need to be printed and establishing essentially a no-fault absentee ballot,” added Kroski.

SB421 will:

• authorize a $90 million bond issuance to help Pennsylvania’s counties pay for the new voting machines they are purchasing in advance of the 2020 election cycle (with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania expecting the total cost of the voting machine replacement to be approximately $150 million);

• require counties applying for funding to help pay for their new voting machines certify to the Pennsylvania Department of State (DOS) the county has complied with state law requirements for the establishment of a program to identify registered electors whose address may have changed and mailed notices and sending a notice to registered electors who have not voted nor appeared to vote during the period beginning five years for whom the board of elections did not receive any information that the elector still resides in the election district, with the certification also including information on whether a county has undertaken a canvass as permitted under state law;

• require the General Assembly be given 180-days notice prior to a decertification of voting machines in 50 percent or more of the state’s counties (does not include the current planned decertification by the Wolf administration);

• eliminate straight party ticket voting;

• allowing voter registration up to 15 days before an election (currently the deadline for registration is 30 days before an election);

• create a new mail-in voting option, which was described as a variation on absentee ballot voting, but separate from the existing absentee ballot system – in essence, though, it is no-excuse absentee voting;

• establish a single time-line for mailed-in ballots (except for military members or voters outside the country, which are governed by federal requirements to allow ballots to be received up to seven days after the election);

• allow mailed-in ballots to be in by 8 p.m. on Election Day at the county voting office (currently absentee ballots must be in by 8 p.m. the Friday before the election);

• prohibit stickers for write-in candidates where paper ballots are used (which is due to the new paper ballot voting machines not being able to read stickers – people will have to write in a name);

• restrict the authority of counties to alter the boundaries of election districts during the period of Dec. 31, 2019 to Nov. 30, 2022 (to avoid creating problems when doing congressional and legislative redistricting);

• remove the requirement that petition circulators for election need to be residents of the district in which they’re circulating the petition (they need only be a registered in Pennsylvania as a member of the political party for which they are circulating the petition);

• eliminate the notarization requirement for circulated petitions (the circulator must instead append a statement that, under penalty of law, the petitions and signatures on them are valid);

• reduce the number of paper ballots the counties are required to have (this allows them to have discretion to look back at past elections to determine an appropriate number of ballots to be printed);

• allow disabled absentee voters who are permanently disabled to submit a single absentee ballot application each year, applicable to future years;

• centrally canvas absentee ballots by the county board of elections (not be counted at the polling places);

• require that nomination petition signers provide the address where they are duly registered and enrolled;

• increase the maximum compensation for inspectors of election, clerks and machine operators to $200 (up from the current $195);

• remove the requirement that civilian applicants for absentee ballots and for mail-in ballots indicate the length of time they have been a citizen (with the requirement only applying to military and oversea absentee voters);

• eliminate from the Election Code outdated references to Traffic Court of Philadelphia;

• require the posting of sample ballot information on each county’s Internet website no later than the Thursday preceding an election;

• allow the DOS to use up to $4 million (which can come from an available funds appropriated to agencies under the jurisdiction of the Governor) for the communication, administration and assistance within each county of the Commonwealth for the purposes of ensuring a complete and accurate census count of the Commonwealth in the 2020 Federal decennial census; and

• provide the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with exclusive jurisdiction to hear challenges to various provisions within the bill, with all contents of the bill applicable to election held on or after April 28, 2020.