Election 2018

Pennsylvania’s Election Code is so outdated that the ACLU is suing for disenfranchisement

PA has the earliest absentee ballot deadline in the country.

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Photo by Timothy Rezendes via Creative Commons
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Nearly a dozen Pennsylvania voters, with help from the ACLU, are suing the state over its absentee ballot deadline.

Pennsylvania has the earliest deadline in the country — absentee ballots are due by 5 p.m. four days before Election Day — which effectively disenfranchises voters and violates the state and U.S. constitutions, the suit claims. Some voters don’t even receive properly requested ballots until after the deadline to return them has passed.

Why is the timeframe so tight in the first place? Blame the state’s 1937 Election Code, which over eight decades has only been sporadically updated.

Maybe in 1937, when the U.S. Postal Service made twice-daily deliveries, this narrow window was reasonable, said David Thornburgh, president of the Philly-based good-government group Committee of Seventy. But now, “this deadline just doesn’t work.”

There have been attempts to change it legislatively. State Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County last year introduced a bill that would push the deadline to Election Day. Like other voting reform proposed in both chambers, Schwank’s bill never moved out of the State Government committee.

“Sadly we’re in an era where everything is viewed through a highly partisan lens,” Thornburgh said, noting that all proposals are seen as a tactic to benefit a specific political party.

But it’s voters — thousands of them — who are hurt by the current law, according to data from the Pa. Department of State cited in the suit.

“More than 300,000 absentee ballots have not been returned by voters who submitted absentee ballot applications in Pennsylvania elections between 2009 and the 2018 primary election,” the complaint reads. “That includes approximately 46,000 absentee ballots in each of the November 2016 and November 2012 elections.”

Increasingly, voters and organizations looking for reform are turning to the courts.

Pennsylvania’s infamously gerrymandered congressional districts were remedied not through the legislature, but by the state Supreme Court. Judges in the commonwealth are elected as opposed to appointed, which led to accusations of partisan overreach on the court’s part in the redistricting battle. Nearly a dozen state Republicans called for the impeachment of Democrat justices.

But “there are ways to solve this problem” without the courts, Thornburgh said. Pennsylvania could employ secured drop boxes where voters can drop off absentee ballots, like states with mail-in voting already have.

What is missing is the political will to pass this type of reform, Thornburgh said, but there’s reason to hope. Pointing to the state’s high turnout in the midterms, he suggested that more people voting means a greater awareness of the limitations of the current system.

“It’s boiling up,” Thornburgh said. “There are too many voters that have frustrating stories to tell.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2018 stories.

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