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Protect the vote during the coronavirus pandemic

With the April 28 primary approaching in the midst of calls for social isolation, Philly 3.0’s engagement director urges the state to send every voter a mail-in ballot

With the April 28 primary approaching in the midst of calls for social isolation, Philly 3.0’s engagement director urges the state to send every voter a mail-in ballot

With health officials urging social isolation measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, and uncertainty looming over upcoming large-scale public events, Philadelphia Rep. Kevin Boyle is announcing a new bill that would lean into Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail system and mail every voter a ballot.

Pennsylvania’s Act 77 changes include an expansion of no-excuse absentee voting and a new vote-by-mail program that allow voters to mail in ballots 50 days prior to Election Day.

Pennsylvania’s primary is on April 28, so we’re already in that window. There are still some petition challenges yet to be decided, so the ballot isn’t finalized. Once those are worked through, the mail ballots will be sent to everyone who requested them.

Currently people can either request a ballot online, or request one at the countyDo Something election office. People don’t automatically get it, but when you fill out the request form you do have the option of getting automatically mailed a ballot again in the fall general election. You just have to do this every year.

Enter Rep. Boyle’s bill. Under the proposal, every eligible voter in Pennsylvania would be mailed a ballot application automatically for both the primary and the general election of 2020, with prepaid postage, in order to make it as easy as possible for voters to participate from home.

One issue that would need to be addressed in the bill is that under Act 77 voters who request a mail-in ballot really have to use it. If you show up to your usual polling place after requesting a mail ballot they’ll require you to fill out a provisional ballot, which is not ideal.

Boyle shared the draft legislation (HB 2637) that he plans to introduce which would require amending Act 77 with some urgency in order to set things in motion with enough time.

Read MoreIt’s also a problem that a great many poll workers are older adults who especially should be avoiding exposure to members of the public. In a typical polling place, hundreds of people will be walking through the door on Election Day. Staffing enough polling places could become a challenge for local election officials, so anything that can be done to divert a lot of in-person voting to the mail instead is helpful.

Ohio election officials are already scrambling to fill a shortage of election workers ahead of their primary due to poll workers taking greater precautions during the pandemic.

Another way state lawmakers could help county election boards find the election-day workers they need would be to allow half-day shifts for poll workers and pay them more money. Not everybody can volunteer for a 14- or 15-hour day, especially if they’re not retired, but more people could make it work if it were half that.

One interesting question is whether this emergency bill could be a catalyst for Pennsylvania to take a bigger step toward becoming a universal mail-voting state like Colorado, Oregon and Washington in the near-term, and continue to send vote-by-mail ballots to every registered voter in every election.

The viability of a move like that would hinge a lot on politicians’ perceptions about what it would mean for the partisan balance of power.

The evidence on this is murky, and one of the only studies of the partisan Custom Haloimplications from Colorado found it to be mostly a wash in partisan terms, though it was very successful at boosting turnout among younger and lower-propensity voters.

As Pennsylvania’s population skews older, and includes many voters who might prefer to vote from home, many people may find—as they have in other states—that voting by mail is a convenient service that they want the state to keep offering automatically.

Sign and share this petition to state lawmakers to help raise awareness of this issue, and get this bill passed in time to make a difference for the April 28th election.

Jon Geeting is the director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, a political action committee that supports efforts to reform and modernize City Hall. This is part of a series of articles running on both The Citizen and 3.0’s blog.

Photo courtesy Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker / U.S. Air Force

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