Democratic Governor’s Voting Reform Bill Would Eliminate Straight-Ticket Voting in Pennsylvania

Straight-ticket voting, linked to voter turnout, might prove especially important in 2020: Democrats need Pennsylvania if they want to win the White House.

Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Legislators in Pennsylvania’s state legislature passed a voting reform bill Tuesday that would, among other measures, eliminate “straight-ticket” voting in the state — whereby voters can fill in a single bubble to vote for a party’s entire slate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the bill, and its provisions would go into effect immediately, in time for the 2020 election.

This represents a reversal for Wolf, who over the summer walked back a measure eliminating straight-ticket voting under pressure from both Democrats in the party and progressive organizations who support it. Democrats and progressives say the straight-ticket option is a boon for the party because it tends to increase the number of votes for down-ballot candidates, and Democrats in Pennsylvania’s state House had previously conducted internal analysis that showed that eliminating the straight-ticket option would have an overall negative impact for the party.

Pennsylvania is one of at least three states Democrats need if they want to win the White House, so voter turnout is paramount.

They also argue that, because straight-ticket voting reduces the time it takes to vote, eliminating the option would both sacrifice the black vote — a linchpin of Democratic support in the state — and create bottlenecks and longer lines at polling places in more densely populated urban areas. And straight-ticket voting might prove especially important in 2020: Pennsylvania is one of at least three states Democrats need if they want to win the White House, so voter turnout is paramount.

“The evidence is that eliminating the straight party option disproportionately impacts Democratic constituencies,” Democratic Rep. Kevin Boyle, who voted against the bill, told The Intercept.

The measure is part of a larger voting rights reform package Democrats passed in the state House. Wolf and progressive groups including the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are celebrating the package. The bill includes major overhauls to Pennsylvania’s “antiquated voting laws,” said Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott, including “regressive absentee and voter registration deadlines” that negatively impact participation.

“Pennsylvania joins 31 states with no-excuse voting by mail options,” Abbott continued, “and becomes the 12th state that automatically mails either an absentee ballot or ballot application to residents who have signed up to receive a ballot every election. Providing more time to register to vote encourages voter participation. By cutting the registration deadlines in half, Pennsylvania will have shorter registration deadlines than 24 states.”

But House Democrats are concerned that the bill makes some crucial concessions, and say that until earlier this week, Wolf’s office cut them out of the current negotiation process.

House Democrats slammed Wolf during a caucus meeting Monday for working around them. House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody called Wolf on Monday night and invited him to caucus on Tuesday. Wolf sent his chief of staff, Mike Brunelle, who implied that there were provisions in the bill Democrats would be happy about.

According to one House Democrat, one possible interpretation of the bill is that it would allow the party to go to court to expand early voting in the state. According to the member, Wolf’s office may think that expanding mail-in voting, loosening restrictions, and opening satellite voting centers, including in local Democratic strongholds like Allegheny and Philadelphia, will offset any negative impact from eliminating the straight-ticket option.

Another concern among House Democrats, including State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, is that the bill would tie funding for new voting machines to existing maintenance of voter rolls — which could translate to voter purges.

House Democratic leadership doesn’t think the party needs to worry about that provision. The bill doesn’t impose new requirements, Abbott explained. “All counties completed voter list maintenance activities in each of the last three years and have completed at least some of their list maintenance this year. The voting machine reimbursement will be driven out as soon as possible so they would just need to reconfirm what they’ve already done and reported likely one additional time,” he said in a statement.

Some members of the Democratic caucus believe that the proposal to eliminate the straight-ticket option was used as a bargaining chip to get Republicans to agree to pass the larger package. Another bill put forward by Democratic Rep. Chris Rabb pushed for similar voting reforms but has been stalled in House since June. Only two Republicans voted against the measure: Reps. Steven Mentzer and David Zimmerman. Neither of their offices immediately responded to a request for comment.

Wolf’s office also noted that organizations including the ACLU, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters support the new compromise legislation. ACLU Pennsylvania Director Reggie Shuford published a blog post Monday urging legislators to vote for the bill, calling it “the most significant election reform in Pennsylvania in several decades.”

In his post, Shuford said the chapter is “certainly aware of the controversy” over eliminating the straight-ticket option and it takes seriously the concerns by advocates and legislators that doing so amounts to voter suppression.

But, he wrote, getting rid of the option “neither creates a barrier to voting nor diminishes one, and, thus, we have no position on that issue,” Shuford wrote. “No one will lose the right to vote or face greater hurdles to voting because of the elimination of straight party voting. While Pennsylvania’s voters may be accustomed to having the option to vote for all candidates from one party with a single push of a button, it is reasonable to expect that voters will adapt and vote based on the ballot that is in front of them.”

As Shuford notes, the straight party option is uncommon. Nine states currently allow straight-ticket voting, and Texas’s option will phase out in 2020. Just last year, on the other hand, the ACLU applauded Michigan’s approval of a straight-ticket option as part of a larger proposal it said modernized the state’s voting system for the first time since 1975.

“I think a lot of us in the Democratic caucus are scratching our heads at the ACLU,’” said Boyle, the representative.

Update: October 31, 2019
After publication, Charles Lardner, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s state House Republicans, sent a statement on behalf of Reps. Mentzer and Zimmerman, who opposed the bill because straight-ticket voting benefits older voters: “Reps. Mentzer and Zimmerman represent a large number of seniors who knowingly utilize straight party ticket voting and if that is taken away from them they have said they feel it may become unnecessarily cumbersome to cast their ballots and they will be less likely to vote. While both members agree with many provisions of Senate Bill 421, and agreed to many of the amendments and procedural votes to bring it before the full House, they voted against final passage of the measure due to the concerns of senior constituents.”

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