Pa. lawmakers, county officials raise concerns about implementing election reforms

Shown is a paper ballot during a demonstration of the ExpressVote XL voting machine at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 13, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Shown is a paper ballot during a demonstration of the ExpressVote XL voting machine at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 13, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

State lawmakers are on track to send a voting reform bill to Gov. Tom Wolf after negotiations over election security funding provisions went late Monday.

The final product calls for issuing $90 million in bonds to reimburse counties for 60 percent of the costs of installing new voting systems ahead of the 2020 presidential primary. SB421 also was amended to allocate $4 million to bolster census response rates.

The census funding is new. But lawmakers have discussed the $90 million debt issuance to pay for voting system upgrades all year and even put it in a similar measure that Gov. Wolf vetoed last summer.

At the time, Wolf cited the inclusion of a provision that would eliminate the straight-ticket voting option on ballots.

The version of SB421 up for third consideration in the House on Tuesday also would get rid of straight-ticket voting. But Wolf’s spokesman said last week the governor views the new legislation as a compromise that ushers in other election reforms supported by Democrats.

Most Democratic legislators continue to oppose the elimination of the straight-ticket ballot option. Its onset during the presidential primary will exacerbate potential delays and other complications during a high-turnout contest where voters and poll workers already have to adjust to new machines, they say.

House Democrats continued lobbying against straight-ticket elimination on the House floor Monday afternoon. They also attempted to add amendments delaying reforms until after the 2020 election.

“The changes in this underlying bill represent the most substantial changes to voting in Pennsylvania since the 1930s,” said state Rep. Malcom Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia. “[We should] get through this next election, allow people the opportunity to understand the new machines and then implement these changes on a basis that individuals — and also that our county administrators — can actually absorb.”

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Union/Lycoming, said SB421’s implementation of no-excuse mailed ballots should cut down on in-person voting, thus delays created by the added time it takes voters to fill out a complete ballot without the straight-ticket option will be offset.

Everett also said county officials can handle the changes.

But county elections directors say they have major concerns about moving Pennsylvania’s voter registration deadline from the current one month before the election to 15 days.

With the deadline 30 days out, election officials tend to get through registration applications “just in time to start processing the onslaught of late absentee [ballot] applications and return of absentee ballots,” says Mercer County Voter Registration and Election Director Jeff Greenburg.

“From an administrative and processing standpoint, it might actually be better, easier, to just go to same-day [registration],” Greenburg said.

That would mean a greater post-election burden, more provisional ballots to review, delayed results certifications and more races in limbo for longer stretches of time – all preferable to a deadline 15 days out, Greenburg said.

A couple amendments debated on Monday would’ve provided funding to implement the earlier registration deadline – but only in Philadelphia.

County elections offices would have an extra task if they want to qualify for election system reimbursement under SB421. They must certify they’ve identified, notified and removed inactive voters — using postal and PennDOT driver’s license records, if necessary – from registration rolls in accordance with state law.

Rules for voter database maintenance aren’t changing, but legislators are “reinforcing” the existing statute by tying it to funding because counties aren’t consistently completing the process, according to state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York.

Meanwhile, the effort to reimburse counties for new voting systems, mandated after the 2016 election to require a paper trail for every ballot cast, shifts to the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority. The agency’s board must approve the bonds to reimburse counties for voting system expenses. PEDFA’s board meets next Thursday.

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