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Election reform bill speeds toward approval in Pennsylvania

October 29, 2019 GMT
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FILE - In this June 13, 2019, file photo, ExpressVote XL voting machines are displayed during a demonstration at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Legislation speeding toward approval in Pennsylvania would deliver the biggest changes to state election laws in decades while approving much of the money it'll cost counties to buy new voting machines ahead of next year's presidential election. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
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FILE - In this June 13, 2019, file photo, ExpressVote XL voting machines are displayed during a demonstration at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Legislation speeding toward approval in Pennsylvania would deliver the biggest changes to state election laws in decades while approving much of the money it'll cost counties to buy new voting machines ahead of next year's presidential election. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Legislation headed toward the governor’s desk in Pennsylvania on Tuesday would deliver the biggest changes to state election laws in decades and provide aid to counties for much of the cost of new voting machines as a bulwark against hacking in next year’s presidential election.

In a compromise package negotiated behind closed doors over the last four months, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf secured some of his priorities to increase voting access, including allowing any voter to mail in a ballot and moving voter-registration deadlines closer to the election.

In exchange, Republicans who control the state Legislature dropped their opposition to Wolf’s insistence that counties buy new voting machines and secured their top priority, eliminating the ballot option for straight party-ticket voting.

Counties, meanwhile, will get $90 million in aid to offset the costs of buying the new machines ahead of an election in which Pennsylvania will be one of the nation’s premier presidential battlegrounds.

The Senate passed it Tuesday, 35-14, hours after the House passed it, 138-61. Wolf will sign it and help Pennsylvania shed its status as the nation’s least voter-friendly state, his office said.

“It’s a giant leap forward that makes voting more convenient for millions of Pennsylvanians and improves our election security,” Wolf said in a statement.

All but two “no” votes were cast by Democrats, including some who said the bill doesn’t go far enough to expand voter access and protested the elimination of straight party-ticket voting as a convenience used particularly by lower-income, urban and minority voters.

Democratic lawmakers also said the closed-door negotiations that produced the bill last week lacked transparency.

“The rush to achieve this measure in an abbreviated amount of time is concerning to me and, I think, should be concerning to all,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said during floor debate.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, defended the give-and-take that led to the final bill, and said the final product is a worthy one.

“Ultimately, this is the most significant modernization of our elections code in decades,” Corman said.

Republicans contend that the straight party-ticket option encourages voters to blindly pick parties instead of candidates.

Democrats in Pennsylvania outnumber Republicans by a five-to-four margin, and Republicans pushed to eliminate the option amid worries that down-ballot Republican candidates will suffer from a suburban voter backlash against President Donald Trump next year.

Wolf last year began pressing counties to buy machines with a paper-based backup, following warnings by federal authorities that Russian hackers had targeted Pennsylvania and at least 20 other states during 2016′s election.

Pennsylvania was one of about a dozen states where some or all voters, until recently, used machines that store votes electronically without a paper-based backup that can be audited.

Wolf’s administration had warned lawmakers that Pennsylvania could otherwise be left as the only state — and certainly the only presidential battleground state — without paper systems that allow a voter to double-check how their vote was recorded.

The total price tag to replace the state’s roughly 25,000 voting machines could exceed $125 million. Wolf’s administration says four in five counties have either bought or leased machines or have an agreement to do so.

Many states long ago adopted farther-reaching changes to election laws, including automatically registering people to vote when they turn 18, allowing election-day voter registration or opening polling places for early in-person voting.

The changes in the bill are relatively modest in comparison. Still, the bill had backing from good-government groups and its advocates say it carries Pennsylvania’s biggest election changes in more than 80 years.

The bill allows any voter to mail in a ballot for any reason, up to 50 days before the election. Currently, Pennsylvania restricts mail-in ballots to “absentee” voters who meet a narrow set of reasons.

The bill also allows voters to register up to 15 days before the election. Among states, Pennsylvania’s current 30-day deadline is the furthest out, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

With a lawsuit pending over Pennsylvania’s deadlines for counties to receive absentee ballots, the bill adjusts those deadlines to 8 p.m. on election days. Currently, the deadline is 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election, the nation’s earliest.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter