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PA lawmakers propose ways to modernize voter registration

By   /   December 26, 2014  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In the age of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, Pennsylvania is stuck in the past century when it comes to voter registration.

Prospective voters can download the necessary form online, but can’t submit it digitally. Instead, they have to mail it or personally deliver it to their county voter registration office.

That’s among the voting procedures some members of the General Assembly want to change. It’s early in the new legislative session, but several proposals to modernize voting protocol are already circulating among state lawmakers.

Shutterstock image

BALLOT BOX REFORM: Pennsylvania lawmakers are pushing for ways to modernize voter registration.

One piece of legislation would provide for electronic voter registration and another would allow citizens to register the same day as an election and then vote, which proponents say could increase turnout.

“In this day and age, I do truly believe that we should be doing everything we can to make voting easier and as accessible as possible to all eligible voters,” said state Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, who has joined state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, in sponsoring same-day registration legislation.

While not related to registration, a third proposal would allow early voting beginning 30 days before a primary or general election. Pennsylvanians can already vote via absentee ballot, but must meet certain criteria to do so.

Voters with long commutes and hectic schedules could benefit from the flexibility of early voting, said Elizabeth Randol, vice chairwoman of issues for the reform group Common Cause Pennsylvania. Perhaps that could improve dismal voter turnout, too, she said.

“This wouldn’t be a magic wand, but I think it would encourage opportunity for people that would have schedule conflicts,” Randol said.

The lack of early voting options and electronic registration was included in an October report from Common Cause that found Pennsylvania has made improvements to voting procedures, but still has work to do in implementing recommendations from a report made by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

Twenty-one states currently offer online registration, while another three have passed laws to create such systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Online registration can be more reliable, Randol said, noting that using the paper system requires staff to manually enter data. Difficulty reading handwriting or a typo can lead to problems — like somebody finding out on Election Day their name isn’t in the voter rolls, she said.

There’s also a chance for taxpayer savings. A 2010 report from Pew Charitable Trusts found that Arizona’s preregistration costs dropped from 83 cents per paper registration to 3 cents for online registration.

As of May, 10 states and Washington, D.C., offered same-day voter registration, according to the NCSL, which also cited statistics that found it can increase voter participation by 3 to 6 percent.

“It’s not a huge uptick, but it shows that there’s a segment of the population that utilizes it,” Schreiber said.

Photo courtesy of Ballotpedia

EASY ACCESS: State Rep. Kevin Schreiber said same-day voter registration could make voting more accessible to citizens.

While some critics of the process say it could allow for voter fraud, Schreiber said the burden of proof is higher than it would be for someone who registers ahead of time. States that offer same-day registration can ask for ID or a utility bill to verify someone’s address, he said.

While the proposed changes can improve the system, if done correctly, they could also bring stronger integrity to the process, said Steve Miskin, a House GOP spokesman.

“That has always been our goal with election reform: to protect the vote,” Miskin said.

One of those attempts, though, didn’t pass muster when challenged in court. The Commonwealth Court earlier this year struck down a controversial state law that would have required voters to show identification before casting their ballots.

Outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett decided not to appeal, but stood behind the law as a way to ensure those who voted were eligible.

With more reforms circulating now, Megan Sweeney, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, cautioned that “any changes should be deliberately and fully investigated by the legislature.”

“Our electoral system should ensure that voters can confidently cast their vote,” she said in a written statement. “There are many concerns with changes to our system including voter registration security, the cost of running an election for the taxpayers and the burden on local election workers to comply with new regulations.”

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party didn’t return a message seeking comment.

Ultimately, Randol said portable voter registration that would follow citizens from place to place would be the “best” reform. That’s a far bigger ask from lawmakers, she said.

For now, the modernization proposals circulating would still make voting more accessible and possibly reduce administrative costs for election officials, Randol said.

“Most of these are very good wins for everybody,” she said.

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Andrew formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.