March 2009

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Polling booth in Pennsylvania
News and Opinion

Time to bring Pennsylvania voting into the 21st Century

-- Pennsylvania State Reps. Mike McGeehan and Babette Josephs

Citing alternate balloting methods that increased voter participation in a host of other states in last November's election, a team of legislators from the Pennsylvania House and Senate today unveiled legislation to reform Pennsylvania's voting process and encourage more residents to be regular voters.

The bills would allow for voting before Election Day in Pennsylvania, and permit "no-excuse" absentee balloting, which would allow registered voters to apply for and cast an absentee ballot without having to present a reason. In addition, the bills would specifically guarantee the absentee voting rights of military voters.

Voters in more than 30 other states already have access to some form of "no excuse" early voting and Maryland will soon join them after voters in November approved a ballot question by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

Early voting could reduce long lines at the polls in years, such as in 2008, when turnout is especially heavy. In Pennsylvania, overall voting was up more than 6 percent from 2004, with Erie County showing a 12 percent increase and Berks County leading the state with a 13 percent rise.

Much of Berks County is represented in the Senate by Sen. Michael O'Pake. Even with that increase, he said he believes even more eligible residents would be encouraged to vote if they could vote early.

"Every election day, Pennsylvania voters are at risk of having to choose between not exercising their right to vote, or neglecting family and other duties because of long lines at polling places," O'Pake said. "Voting is a right. It’s not supposed to be a test.”

Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) said that the shifting lifestyles of today's world need to be addressed by new, but still secure, voting options.

"I understand that people lead busy lives, and there may be extenuating circumstances that prevent them from getting to the polls on Election Day," Leach said. "By extending the length of time the polls are open, voters will have a greater opportunity to cast their ballot. I believe that measures like early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting will ultimately increase voter turnout."

The legislators said that long lines at polling places affect the concentration and endurance of poll workers and discourage people from voting, especially those trying to cast a ballot before work or during their lunch hour. to take the wheels off this old train," said Rep. Mike McGeehan (D-Philadelphia), "We have 70- and 80-year-olds manning polls and no one to replace them with. It's an antiquated system and it’s time to make it easier to register and vote without subjecting people to unnecessary hassles on Election Day."

Rep. Eugene DePasquale (D-York) said he believes success in other states last fall proves that early voting is a viable option for Pennsylvania.

"In recent years, the majority of states have made it easier for their qualified voters to cast their vote," DePasquale said. "Pennsylvania must join this group and help our seniors and our working families get to the polls. This would boost turnout and strengthen our democracy."

Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia), Chairwoman of the House State Government Committee, which will first consider the vote reform legislation, said a reformed process must also encompass Pennsylvania's men and women in uniform.

"Of particular concern to me is that it is not expressly written in our state constitution that military voters should be able to vote absentee from wherever they are in the word," she said. "It should be. In fact, we should remove all the archaic barriers that prevent Pennsylvanians from voting."

While there are state Senators and Representatives who are behind the push for early voting, not all are. They will only act if they know early voting matters to their constituents. During the last two presidential elections, states with early voting had 7% higher voter turnout states without early voting. No-excuse absentee voting is safe and efficient. Right now, you can only qualify for an absentee ballot if you are out of the county for the day, are over 65, or are too ill or infirm to get to the polls. Therefore, if you just work long hours, and would miss the times the polls are open, you cannot vote. If you sprain your ankle, you still have to wait on line. The easier we make voting, the more people can participate.

Jessica Weingarten is organizing a petition to let people tell their state representatives that they want early voting in Pennsylvania. Contact her to receive a copy of the formal letter to the State Senate, and petition forms that you can sign, and get your friends and neighbors to sign. You will be able to submit them to the local coordinator. You can also submit any questions you may have about the process for getting the law changed.

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