Bill Hynes, charged in burglary case, returns to court Tuesday

Pennsylvania updated its voter registration form — and it angered a lot of county elections officials

Jonathan Lai
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Paper applications for mail ballots will continue to exist in Pennsylvania, but the voter registration forms will now also allow voters to request mail ballots at the same time. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — It was supposed to just be a small but helpful change: updating the Pennsylvania voter registration form to allow voters to simultaneously sign up for mail ballots. But the blowback from county elections officials was immediate.

After a contentious meeting of Pennsylvania elections officials, the state asked for feedback and revised its proposal. The new form, which went live over the weekend, adds a checkbox to receive mail ballots and select their mailing address. The form is now titled “Pennsylvania Voter Registration Application & Mail-in Ballot Request.”

“The goal is really to simplify the process so voters don’t have to fill out two forms,” said Jonathan Marks, a top official at the Pennsylvania Department of State, which runs elections. “That’s the overarching goal.”

More:Women registering to vote in Pa. in numbers far exceeding men since abortion decision

More:Thousands of Pa. Democrats join GOP; no one seems sure why

The way the change was handled, though, upset many county elections officials. It came out of nowhere, they said, and revealed a continued lack of respect for the county officials who actually run elections. They questioned the state’s priorities and raised a number of issues the seemingly small change could create, including voter confusion, new administrative challenges, and more openings for litigation.

Some of that may already have begun: A couple in Dauphin County dropped off two forms Monday with the signatures scratched out, apparently out of confusion.

Ultimately, the form change isn’t a major scandal. But the episode provides a lens into some of the complex issues and long-held frustrations of election administration in Pennsylvania.

“It is so exhausting to try to protect voters from elected officials and advocacy groups who just want to screw with them,” said Forrest Lehman, elections director in Lycoming County.

The processes for registering to vote and applying for mail ballots in Pennsylvania have changed in recent years, with two of the biggest changes coming from the rollout of online voter registration and, later, the online mail ballot application.

People who apply to vote online have for a while now been given the option to also sign up to use mail ballots.

“The change really is pretty simple and straightforward: We’re making updates to the paper voter registration form to align the form with the online voter registration application,” Marks said in the interview last week, before the final changes were made public.

The paper voter registration form is now two pages. The back has a section to opt for a mail ballot, a section for the ballot’s mailing address, and an updated signature section for both voter registration and the ballot application.

Other portions of the form were also tweaked, such as the section on gender, which now lists female, male, and non-binary or other.

When it comes to elections, small things can have big and sometimes unexpected effects.

For example, the Act 77 mail voting law that took effect in 2020 allowed voters to request to be on a “permanent list” to vote by mail and receive mail ballot applications.

But many voters don’t remember checking the box and are confused or alarmed when they receive mail ballots they don’t recall requesting; others that want mail ballots submit duplicate requests that then get rejected. (This happened hundreds of thousands of times in 2020.)

Now, county officials worry, the voter registration form will create more confusion. What if well-meaning third-party groups check that box when sending prefilled forms to voters?

The mail ballot portion could also confuse people trying to register to vote or update their address because the signature box is right underneath that section.

“This is all kinds of added confusion and chaos, and it’s not going to go well for the voters, because they’re going to be frustrated,” said Jerry Feaser, Dauphin County elections director.

County elections officials were preparing for a conference earlier this month when the state sent them proposed changes. County officials were upset, and a presentation at the conference got heated quickly, multiple county officials said. The change seemed to come out of nowhere, and they felt like they were being given very little time to respond — and little opportunity for input.

Marks and the Department of State noted they convened a working group of counties to solicit feedback — though that came after the changes were already proposed. By implementing changes less than three months before the next election day, counties said, they will have to scramble to address new questions.

For example, what if someone submits the form after the voter registration deadline but before the later mail ballot application deadline? State officials told counties Monday to treat the two as separate, but that can create logistical problems if a voter moved from another county or voter registrations are processed at a different office from mail ballot requests.

If counties end up with different procedures and policies, it opens up more opportunities for counties to get sued, officials fear, and for misinformation.

Jim Allen, elections director for Delaware County, suggested the state should go to court now to get preemptive sign-off before legal challenges come in.

“It would be worthwhile for them, for the Department of State, to seek some kind of declaratory judgment. ... Go into court and say, “Judges, this is what we want to do, give us an opinion, yea or nay,’” he said.

The state addressed most of the concrete issues about the form design, county elections officials acknowledged Friday. But they’re bracing for confusion — and threats and abuse.

“We believe this proposed form, as-is, would give fuel to individuals and groups who continue to question the integrity of our elections,” Bucks County elections director Tom Freitag wrote in a letter last week to the department.

Marks said he understood that the change may create some administrative challenges. But ultimately, he said, the state has an obligation to voters, and state officials believe this change will help them.

“I get the frustration, and we do try to be sensitive to how these things are going to impact county election officials,” Marks said. “But ... at the end of the day, in the final analysis, the most important thing is the interest of voters and what’s in the best interest of voters.”