OP-ED: Folmer supports constitutional amendments to reform Pa. elections

State Sen. Mike Folmer
48th District
A New Voting Systems Expo hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of State took place at Dickinson College Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Pennsylvania counties are preparing to replace voting machines after Gov. Tom Wolf in April mandated that voting machines used in the state have a verifiable paper trail. Bill Kalina photo

I’m pleased to join with Senate colleagues to propose bipartisan election changes — beginning with three constitutional amendments: absentee ballots, poll workers, and judicial retention elections.

Under Pennsylvania’s Constitution, voters wanting absentee ballots are restricted to when their work takes them outside their county, an illness or disability, or observance of a religious holiday.

By amending Pennsylvania’s Constitution, we can empower voters to request and submit absentee ballots for any reason — allowing them to vote early and by mail.

We’d also like to address other absentee ballot issues, including: eliminating public postings of approved absentee voters’ names, mailing absentee ballots earlier, and giving voters more time to return absentee ballots.

We should also establish that voters could make written requests to be placed on a county Permanent Early Voting List — with procedures to remove inactive voters. Once a voter opts in, they would automatically receive absentee ballots.

During Pennsylvania’s 1968 Constitutional Convention, there were apparently concerns with poll workers, and the existing Constitution excludes federal, state, county or municipal employees. We can expand the number of volunteer poll workers through a constitutional amendment that eliminates these restrictions.

Pennsylvania’s existing Constitution also has an anomaly that causes confusion and needless costs: requiring a separate ballot or column for the retention of justices, judges, and justices of the peace. Another constitutional amendment would eliminate this problem.

Counties must secure polls, comply with federal ADA requirements, get voting machines delivered on time and ready to use, and find volunteers for polls. These challenges are compounded in precincts with fewer than 250 voters. We should give counties the option to consolidate small precincts and also add another option to mail ballots in undersized districts. Ballots would be automatically mailed like absentee ballots and voters would return them without going to a poll.

Current Pennsylvania election law also requires counties to have ballots for 110 percent of the total number of registered voters for each polling place. We can trim these needless costs by reducing the requirement to 10 percent of the highest number of ballots cast in the previous three Primary or General Elections in each individual election district.

Senator Mike Folmer speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Write-in candidates are an American phenomenon: a person not on the ballot is elected by voters who write in his or her name. However, there are unintended consequences.  For example, someone writes in a name regardless of interest or qualifications and that other person is elected by just one write-in vote. Write-in candidates should receive the same number of votes as would be required if they had filed nomination petitions. For example, if 10 petition signatures are required, a write-in candidate should need to receive a minimum of 10 identical write-in votes to be elected to that office.

We should also give counties the option to establish “Vote Centers”: alternatives to traditional, neighborhood polls. Voters would be allowed to cast votes at any county Vote Center — regardless of their home address. Studies have shown vote centers may increase voter turnout while cutting costs.

We should also consider “curbside voting.” If a voter cannot physically enter a poll, he or she may ask an election officer bring a ballot to the entrance or curb. There, they would be read the ballot (unless otherwise requested by the voter). However, it would be illegal to try to influence a voter, mark the ballot any other way than requested, or tell how someone voted.

As chair of the Senate State Government Committee, I look forward to deliberating these and other proposed election changes in the weeks and months ahead.

— State Sen. Mike Folmer represents the 48th Senate District in the Pennsylvania State Legislature.