Editorial | It’s about time: online absentee applications in Pa.



Governor Tom Wolf announced on Monday that state voters will be allowed to request absentee ballots online.

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Gov. Tom Wolf, D-Pa., announced Monday that the state will now allow voters to request absentee ballots online rather than sending an application by mail. Voters will still have to receive and submit their ballots via postal mail, but these new guidelines provide a much needed hastening of Pennsylvania’s absentee ballot process.

The process of absentee voting in Pennsylvania is more restrictive than most other states. The law requires residents to request an absentee ballot by the Tuesday before the election, and the county must receive them by the Friday before Election Day. If the ballot arrives after the deadline, it is not counted — even if it comes before the end of Election Day.

The new online process will bypass the additional step of completing and mailing in a paper absentee ballot application, or hand-delivering the form to an applicant’s county election office for approval, before receiving the ballot itself. This change is a start, but if Pennsylvania really wants to increase fairness, they must continue to make deliberate improvements.

Postal service isn’t the most reliable form of mail when it comes to receiving a document on time, and it’s possible that some people do not even receive their ballot before the deadline. The new guidelines shave a few days off of this process, making it more accessible. Still, there are improvements to be made in the new system.

Online ballot applications will require a Pennsylvania driver’s license or ID number for processing. The department plans to accommodate online applicants who do not have a PennDot ID number by 2020, but until then this significantly decreases the accessibility of online absentee requests — especially for voters who do not drive.

Additionally, Pennsylvania rejected 2,374 absentee ballots in the 2014 midterm election. Of these absentee ballots, 86% were rejected for missing the absentee deadline — many arriving after Friday, but before Election Day. For comparison, only 19% of ballots rejected in Georgia were due to missing the deadline.

Given these statistics, the online option should decrease the percentage of ballots rejected for missing the deadline, though it will take time to see if the new program actually makes a difference. The request process is easier, but it doesn’t change the fact that Pennsylvania still has the earliest absentee deadline in the entire country, according to the ACLU.

Residents and organizations have fought for years to make absentee voting fairer in Pennsylvania — the ACLU sued the state in November 2018 for their absentee deadlines.

“The way the Election Code is structured, the voter can do everything that is required of them, the county can do everything appropriately, and still the voter is disenfranchised,” ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak said.

The lawsuit is ongoing, and as of early June, the state court heard the first arguments challenging the deadline.

The online absentee application is something to celebrate, and certainly a step in the right direction. But we shouldn’t let this distract us from the work and improvements in the Pennsylvania voting system that still need to be made.