Boost voter participation with better absentee ballot laws

Aug 28 2019 | 05:26 PM

(AP) County election officials across Pennsylvania disenfranchised thousands of voters in last year's general election, not because of any chicanery on the voters' part but because of obsolete rules embedded in the absentee voting system.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently that state officials rejected 4.2 percent of the 187,000 absentee ballots that Pennsylvanians cast in the 2018 general election. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, that is the second-highest absentee rejection rate nationwide, behind only Delaware. And it is more than three times the national average rejection rate of 1 percent.

And the rate undoubtedly is worse than it looks. Counties self-report to the commission and two of Pennsylvania's largest counties — Allegheny, with 941,028 registered voters for the 2018 election; and Bucks, with 457,235 registered voters — did not report any rejected absentees. Though Philadelphia County had more than 1,000 late absentee ballots, only 378 are listed in the statistics. The commission reported that only 0.6 percent of all absentee ballots cast in November were in Pennsylvania elections, but the state accounted for 7.2 percent of all rejected absentee ballots.

There is no mystery surrounding the problem. Pennsylvania has the nation's tightest deadlines for casting absentee ballots. Pennsylvania voters have until one week before an election to request an absentee ballot, which they receive by mail. But the completed ballot must be received by the local election office by 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election — just three days between the request and submission deadlines.

Those deadlines were feasible in a different era, when most residents lived in cities and the postal service delivered mail twice each day.

This problem is easy to fix. The Legislature should expand the deadlines to count votes that are received by the close of voting on Election Day. And to further increase participation, the law should provide for “no excuse'' absentee eligibility, which would enable more people to vote by mail.

The Legislature recently passed a bill containing some of those reforms, but Republican leaders could not resist including a provision to outlaw straight-ticket voting in a bid to boost their own electoral prospects, prompting Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to veto it.

When they return from their summer recess, lawmakers should pass a clean, straight-up bill to bring absentee voting into the 21 century.

The Citizens' Voice