OP-ED: Proud to advance election reforms

State Sen. Mike Folmer
48th 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

I’m pleased the Senate State Government Committee, which I chair, recently advanced various election reforms, including: open primaries, easing voting by absentee ballot, eliminating straight ticket/straight party voting, and rotating Philadelphia judicial ballots.

I originally didn’t support open primaries, as I’ve long questioned why taxpayers fund the selection of Republicans’ and Democrats’ candidates while independents and third parties choose their candidates without taxpayer moneys and aren’t able to vote in primaries.  However, after our public vetting of this plan, I’m now able to support having independents voting in primary elections.

Another reform I’m advocating is amending Pennsylvania’s Constitution to eliminate restrictions for voting by absentee ballot. Currently, absentee voting is limited to when work takes you outside your county, an illness or disability, or observance of a religious holiday.  By amending Pennsylvania’s Constitution, we can empower voters to request and vote by absentee ballot for any reason, which could lead to voting early and by mail.

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I’d also like to address other absentee ballot issues, including: eliminating public postings of absentee voters’ names, mailing absentee ballots earlier, and giving voters more time to return absentee ballots. This latter point will need more discussion to address the question of how long elections officials should wait to receive absentee ballots.

While a common goal is having flexible absentee ballot deadlines, there’s a fear that the more outstanding absentee ballots there are, the less likely winners can be declared election night. And, we all know what happens whenever election results aren’t known until after Election Day: people think someone is trying to steal an election. Discussions will continue.

Current Pennsylvania election law also requires counties to print ballots for 110% of the total number of registered voters for each poll. We can trim these needless costs by reducing the requirement to 10% of the highest number of ballots cast in the previous three primary or general elections in each individual election district. While counties will likely print more, lowering the floor gives them flexibility while also saving taxpayers money.

Another voting reform calls for the establishment of an Election Law Advisory Board to give counties ongoing input into election changes. The key to meaningful election reforms is to involve county elections officials, which is a goal of this legislation. This measure was the focus of another public hearing last session, but time ran out before it could be advanced.

Also an election reform measure introduced in previous years is elimination of straight ticket/straight party voting in Pennsylvania. This issue was raised a number of times during discussions on Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandate to the counties to replace every voting machine in every county across the commonwealth prior to the 2020 elections.

Commonly called the “Pennsylvania method” of straight-ticket/straight party voting, we are just one of a handful of states requiring this option — and the only state that requires erasing a straight party vote whenever a voter subsequently votes for a specific candidate. Elimination of straight party/straight ticket voting would bring Pennsylvania in line with most other states.

Yet another reform coming from our public vetting but is specific to Philadelphia is rotating the names of judicial candidates on ballots. Evidently, the current method of drawing ballot positions gives judicial candidates a distinct advantage to those who appear at or near the top of the ballot. The proposed change would rotate names among Philadelphia’s many wards.

As chair of the Senate State Government Committee, I’m proud of our efforts to date and 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.