There are a lot of unknowns heading into the May 21 primary election in Philadelphia, but there are two things we know for sure — voter turnout will be low and a recount, if necessary, will not be possible because Philadelphia’s voting machines do not produce a paper trail. These problems are not new, yet little has been done to address them. Over the past few months, for example, we saw no robust effort to increase voter turnout in the city, and the effort to replace the voting machines has been wrapped in controversy — so much so that City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said she won’t sign off on the payment for new machines until her office reviews the selection process.
Investment in elections is not impossible. Virginia managed to replace all of the state’s voting machines in less than two months. Democrats’ first bill — H.R. 1 — in this session of the U.S. House of Representatives was to strengthen voter protections and make election day for national elections a federal holiday.
There are plenty of innovative ideas to improve elections. This week, The Inquirer shares 10 radical ideas to improve voting from experts, advocates, and high-school students. These include lowering the voting age to 16, ranked choice voting, and automatic voter registration.
But the one issue that is consistently a nonissue in our state and local elections is our elections themselves. The only voting reform that got serious traction in recent years in Pennsylvania was a voter ID law. Had a commonwealth judge not struck it down in 2014, it would have moved elections in the wrong direction — with fewer people able to vote.
The fact that there is no active conversation about positive reform in Pennsylvania is a major problem, mainly because some reforms might take many years to enact.
Consider expanding the use of mail-in ballots. In Pennsylvania, a voter has to be excused to vote by mail. That requires the voter to submit an absentee ballot request on time and ensure that the ballot arrives before the deadline — which is not election day, as some might assume, but the Friday before it. The outcome is that thousands of absentee ballots are not counted because they arrive back past the deadline.
Changing the deadline would require changing the law.
Allowing anyone who wants to vote by mail a reform that could increase voter turnout and decrease lines in polling stations on election day — would require amending Pennsylvania’s constitution. That means that a bill would need to pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and then appear on a ballot in a statewide election. Even if that process started today, the best-case scenario means it will be more than half a decade before the first voter could send a no-excuse mail-in ballot.