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Voting shouldn't be hard

Pennsylvania can learn from other states how to ensure everyone who can vote, does vote, and that the outcome is what the people voted for.

Find out who your state representatives are and who represents you on City Council. Reach out to tell them you want voting to be the easiest thing citizens can do, and that it’s time to change the process to make democracy stronger.

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The vote is the mechanism by which every citizen is represented in our democracy. Not enough eligible voters are registered, and not enough registered voters cast a ballot. Turnout for local elections, which usually have the greatest impact on our daily lives, is even poorer. Pennsylvania’s move to mail-in voting has complications that potentially disenfranchise thousands of voters, and even that isn’t enough for some members of the state legislature to want to roll back this progressive step toward making voting easy.

We can look to other cities and states for easy solutions to improve access, turnout, and ensure the results are what the people are asking for.

  • New York City moved to ranked-choice voting, joining cities like San Francisco, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, and the state of Maine. The results included its most diverse City Council in history!
  • Oregon mastered vote-by-mail two decades ago, automatically sending ballots to registered voters that can be returned at drop-off boxes statewide. They also adopted automatic registration through the DMV and same-day registration.
  • Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot process is hamstrung by the requirement that ballots not be counted until Election Day.  Nearly half the states allow votes to be counted as they come in, we could easily be one of them.
  • Millions of independent voters have been asking for open primaries. As per the constitution, parties are not supposed to be in control of the electoral process. Open primaries will ensure voters are involved in nominating candidates.
  • Why isn’t Election Day a national holiday? Most of the world’s democracies either hold elections on Sundays or make it a national holiday. We can do the same.

 

 

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Ideas We Should Steal, Revisited: Make. Voting. Easier.

We learned many things about Pennsylvania after yesterday’s midterm election. One of them: We should have a better way to vote

Ideas We Should Steal, Revisited: Make. Voting. Easier.

We learned many things about Pennsylvania after yesterday’s midterm election. One of them: We should have a better way to vote

Congratulations, Philadelphia, we’ve done it again. With all eyes on the state — and by extension, the city — we voted in (apparently) higher numbers than in most midterm elections. We vote-danced, thanks to a City Hall DJ session by our own Questlove. We fed people waiting in line and working the polls. We stood in line to fix mail-in ballot errors.

And — much to everyone’s surprise — we ended the night with answers: As expected, Attorney General Josh Shapiro will be Pennsylvania’s new governor. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is going to the senate.

No matter how you are feeling the day after, one thing is clear:

We need to do voting … better.

The morning of yesterday’s all-important midterm elections — with an exhausted nation looking for an end to the long, bitter electoral cycle — the City Commissioners decided to reinstate “poll book verification” to confirm the validity of every vote. This was supposed to cause a delay in reporting results.

The day before yesterday’s all-important midterm elections — where every single vote mattered in Pennsylvania — the City Commissioners released a list about 3,500 names long of Philadelphia voters whose votes were at risk of not being counted.

These were not people who failed to vote. In fact, they were enthusiastic voters who included Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and former City Councilmember Derek Green. They voted early, mailing or dropping off their mail-in ballots in the weeks and days before election season officially ended on November 8.

The problem: Their ballots were accidentally faulty. Some forgot to sign the outer envelope; some forgot to put the date; some sent in “naked” ballots, without the blue inner envelopes, thus invalidating their votes. In Philadelphia, these voters had a last chance to be counted, by finding their name on a list, waiting in a very long line at the City Commissioners office in City Hall, and fixing their ballots.

That is a bonkers way to run an election in the birthplace of American democracy in 2022.

Next year is another major election for Philadelphia, one that will decide our next mayor and the makeup of our City Council. It is also, as a non-federal election, one in which turnout is traditionally low — like, pathetically low. That is not helped by the fact that voting in Philadelphia is overly-complicated.

Here, some ideas we should steal for making our elections easier and more accessible for all citizens:

Be like Oregon!

I should say here that voting is easier in Pennsylvania than it was even three years ago. That’s when the state legislature passed important voting reforms that included no questions asked mail-in voting for the first time — just in time for the pandemic-era 2020 presidential election. You know how that went. (Go, Philly!) But you may not know that the same Republican-led legislature is now having buyer’s remorse over their decision to make voting easier.

For the time being, mail-in voting is here to stay. But to really make voting simple, we should look to Oregon, which for about 20 years has done all of its balloting by mail. Three weeks before the election, ballots automatically go out to every registered voter — as opposed to Pennsylvania, where we have to request ballots every year. There is no “secrecy sleeve” — the baffling extra step we have here. Voters just…vote, and return their ballots by mail or at drop-off boxes throughout the state. Simple.

Oregon has several other voting policies that make it easier to cast a ballot than in Pennsylvania, including same-day registration — as opposed to our two-week lead time — and automatic registration using information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. As Oregon Mayor Kate Brown said when asked why they should make voting easier: “Why wouldn’t we?”

Open primaries, open primaries, open primaries.

Does it make any sense that the fastest growing contingent of voters — those who identify as neither Democrat nor Republican — have no say on whom makes it to the general election ballot? No, it does not. And yet Pennsylvania is one of just nine states where our 1.3 million unaffiliated citizens may not vote for any candidate in the primary. With a 7 to 1 edge in party affiliation, this means that Philly’s next mayor will almost entirely be decided by the relatively small percentage of Democrats who show up to vote in the May primary.

It also means that the most extreme candidates, those most full-throated about our contentious partisan politics, are the ones that often end up on the ballot — like what happened in Pennsylvania this year, when Doug Mastriano secured the Republican nomination in a crowded field. In a PennLive story in August, David Thornburgh, chair of advocacy group Ballot PA, called closed primaries “an archaic system” that amounts to “taxation without representation.”

Again, bonkers.

This may change: Two different bills are making their way through the state legislature, including one from Delaware County Republican Rep. Chris Quinn, that would allow voters to cast a ballot in either primary — something that Thornburgh says is supported by 75 percent of voters.

First choice, second choice, third choice…go!

The first time The Citizen wrote about ranked-choice voting (RCV) was in 2016, when the Republican nomination for president had just gone to Donald Trump with 44 percent of primary votes — something, writer Stephen St.Vincent pointed out, that would not have happened if ranked-choice voting were the policy of the land.

That’s because, under RCV, no candidate can win without a majority of votes. In races with three or more candidates, a majority is ensured by allowing voters not just one vote for one candidate; instead, they rank all of the candidates in order of preference. If their first choice can’t win, then their vote gets shifted to their second choice. The process continues until a candidate crosses that 50 percent threshold. In other words: A candidate that most people rank among their top choices gets the nod.

You can see the results of this in New York City, which last year used RCV for the first time in its competitive municipal races. The result? Eric Adams, a decidedly moderate Democratic mayoral candidate, won with just over 50 percent of the vote (despite the fact that he himself is skeptical of RCV). A study by Fair Vote also found that RCV resulted in New York having the most diverse City Council in its history and that candidates who were more likely to form coalitions were also more likely to win.

Even better would be what social scientist Jonathan Haidt calls Final-Five Voting, which essentially combines RCV with Open Primary voting: All voters get a single primary ballot with candidates from every party on it. The top five vote-getters go on to face each other in the final election, conducted using ranked-choice voting that allows citizens to rank all of the candidates in order of their preference. This — through a complicated process of elimination — results in a winner who truly has the majority of votes. (Alaska launched a version of this, called Final Four, in its primary this year.)

In Philadelphia, former City Councilmember Derek Green launched a City Council review of RCV, but to take effect it would require the state allowing Philly to change its election rules. State Sen. Anthony Williams introduced a bill this term that would allow for both Open Primaries and RCV in municipal races, but it has not yet moved forward.

Count the votes as they come in.

Remember the agony of the long wait in 2020? That’s because Pennsylvania is one of a few states that forbid election workers from opening ballots before Election Day, despite officials in counties all over the state begging the legislature to let them do so. Nearly half of the states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, allow election workers to start scanning ballots as they come in, so they can be included in Election Day counts. They are not allowed to announce any results, over fears of tainting turnout, which is the excuse our legislators use for insisting on the delay. (But even Republican-controlled Florida and Texas allow early counting to begin.)

For close races, this delay is a disaster. Even besides the collective anxiety, it’s also what accounted for many of the conspiracy theories about a stolen election in 2020, as Democratic-leaning mail-in ballots tipped the scales to Joe Biden after an election night that seemed to show Pres. Trump winning in Pennsylvania. It’s unlikely that this election will be any different.

Holidaaay!

In the annals of civic traditions we have long outgrown, Election Day on the “first Tuesday after the first Monday of November” is top of the list. Half of the world’s democracies hold their elections on Sunday. Many others, including India, the world’s largest democracy, make Election Day into an automatic holiday.

Not only does this make it easier for many people to vote, it also has been shown to increase turnout. Our rage-inducing political climate has led to an uptick in voter participation (upside!), but being too busy — including with work and childcare — has long been a reason many American non-voters still don’t cast a ballot.

Kudos to the City of Philadelphia, which gives its workers a half-day on Election Day. We have holidays to celebrate and commemorate all sorts of ideas and people — most of whom lived, fought and died for our American project. Isn’t the most important part of that American project — voting — worth a holiday of its own?

MORE WAYS TO SUPPORT DEMOCRACY

Questlove on Election Day, photo by Albert Lee for the City of Philadelphia.

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