Opinion: Reforming election process can improve voter turnout

November 20, 2015

Archita Taylor, Rosemarie Clouston, and Marissa Liebling, THE ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

As we approach the 2016 presidential election, the process of how Pennsylvanians register and cast ballots is coming to the forefront. Fewer than a quarter of registered voters cast a ballot in the most recent general election less than three weeks ago. While this low turnout can be attributed partly to few high-profile races on the ballot, it’s clear that Pennsylvania’s election system has room for improvement. Though Pennsylvania’s election system works well for many voters, low turnout in recent elections indicates it may not work well for all voters.

Earlier this week, our organizations joined with Pennsylvania-based advocacy and community service organizations to launch Keystone Votes: The Coalition for Modern Elections to raise awareness about updates that will make voting easier and more convenient and ensure that all Pennsylvania voters have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard.

The introduction of online registration in August was a great first step, but there is more work to be done to strengthen elections in the Keystone State. Fortunately, Pennsylvania can learn from what other states have done to make its elections more efficient and convenient.

Today, Pennsylvania voters must register 30 days before an election in order to vote. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., offer same-day registration, which allows voters to both register and cast their ballot on the same trip to their polling place on Election Day or during an early voting period.

Same-day registration helps citizens who become interested and engaged in the elections process in the final weeks before Election Day, when campaigns are most intense. It also provides an important safety net for voters who have moved or learn there’s been an administrative problem with their registration.

Same-day registration is secure, convenient for voters, improves the accuracy of the voter rolls, and makes the election process more efficient. The worst part of any poll worker’s day is having to turn away eligible voters because their registration is out of date; same-day registration would ensure that no eligible voter is told he or she can’t vote.

Youth preregistration allows 16- and 17-year-olds to register so that when they turn 18, they are ready to vote. Preregistration is typically promoted through high schools and a state’s Department of Transportation, which are established points of contact for young people. This update provides an opportunity for young people to learn about their role in the elections process at an early age. Many youth voter registration efforts are conducted on college campuses, so preregistration is an important way to reach young people who do not attend college. Plus, registrations processed well in advance of an election reduce the burden on election officials close to an election.

Early voting, another reform, would allow busy Pennsylvanians the option to vote in person before Election Day. When early voting is offered during evening and weekend hours, it gives voters — particularly those who work long hours and double shifts, like health care workers and first responders — the flexibility to select the time that works best for them to vote.

Early voting also improves election administration, which is why 33 states offer this option, and why Massachusetts will be implementing it in 2016. It reduces the strain on voting machines and election officials on Election Day, leads to less congestion and fewer long lines on Election Day, and gives election administrators more time to discover and correct problems or errors in the voting process.

Some Pennsylvania voters can already mail in absentee ballots if they are sick or out of their districts and cannot vote in person on Election Day, but not all Pennsylvanians are eligible. Optional vote by mail, also referred to as no-excuse absentee voting, gives all voters the option to cast an absentee ballot, without having to provide an excuse, and is allowed in 27 states. Particularly for individuals with disabilities and seniors, this update eliminates the “dignity test” that exists whereby they must prove they qualify for permanent absentee status by supplying a doctor’s note and private medical information.

These updates have been implemented in states across the country and have gained support from Republicans and Democrats alike. In fact, when voters go to the polls to select our new president next year, Pennsylvania will be one of just nine states not to offer voters any of these options to vote, register and pre-register. Pennsylvania should consider adopting these updates, which have been tested and proven.

In 2012, Pennsylvania ranked 29th out of all 50 states in the percentage of eligible adults who actually participated. Other states have adopted these and other updates since that election. If Pennsylvania doesn’t adopt updates of its own, it’s likely to fall further back in 2016.

Archita Taylor is counsel with the Fair Elections Legal Network, Rosemarie Clouston is national coordinator for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Legal Mobilization Project, and Marissa Liebling is legislative director for Project Vote.