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HomeElections in PA

Exploring Free and Fair
   Elections in Pennsylvania

 

 

"For over a century, the League of Women Voters has fought to protect the rights of eligible voters and expand access for those who have been left out of our democratic process.  To that end, LWV PA supports effective election laws that ensure that elections are accessible, transparent, fair, secure, and recountable, promote universal voter participation, and provide voters with meaningful choices when they go to the polls."

Carol Kuniholm, LWVPA Vice President for Government and Social Policy
Statement at the PA House State Government Hearing, April 15, 2021. 

Read the full statement here:     LWVPA Statement to PA State Government Committee.

In 2020,  Pennsylvania elections were in the spotlight for many reasons, including;
  • major changes in election law, including the introduction of new voting machines, and no-excuse, mail-in voting,
  • pandemic-related changes, including changes in polling places, and
  • swing state status in a heavily contested Presidential election.
This page aims to provide you with the information and resources you need to understand Pennsylvania's election process and allow you to advocate effectively for fair, efficient, and secure elections in PA. 

What would you like to explore?
1.  PA Election Law and the LWVPA
Elections are complicated! 

While our federal election schedule and fundamental right to vote is set by the U.S. Constitution and federal law, many voting laws are set by each state's legislature, and the nuts and bolts of carrying out the election are administered at the county level. 

Click below to see how different levels of government affect the way you vote.

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US Constitution and Federal Law
US Constitution and Federal Law
  • Allows Congress to set a national Election Day for federal elections.
  • Guarantees voting rights to citizens over the age of 18 regardless of race or gender
  • Defines the Electoral College system for presidential elections.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans poll taxes, literacy tests and other practices which disenfranchise minority voters.
  • The Help America Vote Act of 2002 describes baseline standards for administering elections.
  • The US Constitution grants individual state legislatures the authority to determine any remaining details concerning "the Times, Places and Manner" of holding elections.


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Pennsylvania Constitution and Law
Pennsylvania Constitution and Law
  • Sets Pennsylvania election dates and deadlines.
  • Defines the voter registration process, methods and qualifications, including methods for changing or updating registrations.
  • Requires maintenance of a statewide registration database with specified fields.
  • Describes procedures for absentee and mail-in voting, including overseas military voting.
  • Sets up a "closed primary" system, requiring party membership to vote for primary candidates.
  • Defines penalties for fraud or interference with elections.


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Allegheny County Elections Division
Allegheny County Elections Division
  • Arranges polling places for all 1,300+ Allegheny County precincts.
  • Hires, trains, and pays 6,000+ poll workers to staff precincts on Election Day.
  • Designs  ballots for each election, showing the proper candidates for each ward and precinct.
  • Arranges for the ballots to be printed and distributed to precincts.
  • Manages the mail-in process for Allegheny County.
  • Sets any extended hours, drop box or secure drop-off locations as needed.
  • Purchases voting machines and scanning equipment.
  • Secures and counts ballots after voting ends.
  • Publishes results of all races in Allegheny County.


In other words, most election procedures are determined by states and counties.   This means that voters across the United States vote using many different sets of laws and procedures.  Even voters in the same state may have different procedures from county to county.    Click here to jump to "A Look at Other States  "

Pennsylvania Act 77 of 2019  -Mail-in Voting and More
                   Act 77 was the most significant update to Pennsylvania election code since the 1930s.  
Act 77 is best known for introducing no-excuse, mail-in voting, but several other important changes were made, including:
  • extending the voter registration deadline to allow voters to register up until 15 days before an election (changed from a 30 deadline.)
  • allocating funds for the purchase of new voting machines which produce a paper record of each vote.
  • extending the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots.
  • eliminating the "straight party" voting option.
While support for Act 77 and mail-in voting became divided along party lines, the bill initially passed with broad bi-partisan support at a time when both chambers of the PA General Assembly were controlled by Republicans, and the Governorship was held by a Democrat.  

Governor Tom Wolf, seated between Sen. Lisa Boscola (D) and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R) at the signing ceremony for Act 77.

Governor Tom Wolf on flickr -- Creative Commons license

2021 Election Reform Efforts in PA
LWVPA Statement on House Bill 1300

LWVPA Opposes PA House Bill 1300 


House Bill 1300 proposes several reforms to Pennsylvania Election Law.  The LWVPA opposes several measures of this bill including,  

  • shifting the voter registration deadline back to 30 days before the election,
  • setting conditions for ballot return locations that would limit their availability, and
  • creating many unfunded mandates that would burden county election boards. 
Read the full text of HB1300 --> HB1300

Governor Wolf vetoed this bill on June 30, 2021.  Read his statement  here.

"
For over a century the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania has worked to expand access to the ballot and to create an informed, empowered citizenry...

...[The] bill offers small fixes for the most pressing requests from county election officials, but far more of the bill appears designed to address non-existent problems and discourage potential voters...


...On behalf of PA voters, we ask legislators to set HB 1300 aside, [and] wait for recommendations approved by a majority of the Election Law Advisory Board..."


Read Full LWVPA Statement
The League of Women Voters has a Long History of Voting Rights Advocacy.  Did you know ...
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LWVUS Advocates for...
LWVUS Advocates for...
  • Electing the President by Popular Vote
  • Redistricting by independent commissions
  • Public financing of election campaigns
  • Abolishing "Super-PACs"
  • Automatic voter registration ("motor-voter")
  • DC Statehood
  • and more...



For details, read LWVUS Positions - "Impact on Issues"


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LWVPA Advocates for...
LWVPA Advocates for...
  • Independent redistricting commission for federal and state legislative districts
  • Opening PA primaries to voters with no party registration
  • Ensuring physical accessibility of polling places
  • Voting machines that use paper ballots
  • No-excuse mail-in voting
  • Same-day registration and registration deadline extension
  • Ending "prison gerrymandering"
  • and more.....


For details, read

LWVPA Positions -- "Where We Stand"



Thinking About Elections Blog

June 9, 2021, "Dust Distorts Election Results"

-Juliet Zavon

 

Subscribe to the "Thinking About Elections" blog here.

Recent Blogs
Thinking About Elections
Ask people to name election problems that should be prevented, and many will answer fraud and possibly voter/administrative error, but no one will call out “dust.” Yup, dust. Yet dust it was that caused errors in the vote tally in New Hampshire. This is a cautionary tale about audits, check lists, and equipment maintenance required for accurate elections...
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Click to Continue Reading
Click to Continue Reading

The author of this short article , a well respected expert in election security, writes, “Based on preliminary reports published by the team of experts that New Hampshire engaged to examine an election discrepancy, it appears that a buildup of dust in the read heads of optical-scan voting machines (possibly over several years of use) can cause paper-fold lines in absentee ballots to be interpreted as votes.”


Read the comments, too. This one stands out:

“I recall a conversation (by phone) with a local election administrator in another state who used the AccuVote OS [a scanner] in her jurisdiction.  I asked her about preventative maintenance. She said 'what do you mean?' I explained how paper sheds fibers, dust, and fingerprints accumulate on things people touch, making a layer of crud. Cleaning this off matters. She seemed quite surprised. I asked if she had a service contract for the machines. She said it had been dropped years ago because it was too expensive.


In conversations with other election officials when asking about mark sensing, I have frequently heard the line: 'These machines are certified to rigorous federal standards, so we don’t worry about that.' Unfortunately, this misrepresents the standards. What the standards guarantee is that, in principal, if adjusted and maintained appropriately, the machines can distinguish votes from non-votes (including folds). It is up to the administrator to do that adjustment and maintenance. Without it, the standards are irrelevant.”

2.  Fraud and Fixes in Pennsylvania...
A.  Do we need Signature Matching?
There were many allegations and fears of voter fraud surrounding the 2020 presidential election -- most of them centered on mail-in voting.  There were also multiple court cases, recounts and even an outsider's offer of a million-dollar reward for anyone exposing voter fraud in Pennsylvania.  Despite all of this interest and attention, out of nearly 7 million votes cast,  fewer than 10 cases of voter fraud have been found -- all cases of people voting by mail for dead relatives.


This type of voter fraud by individual citizens is the easiest to 
commit -- A dead relative is not going to show up at the polls or request an absentee ballot and expose the fact that someone else has voted for them.  However, it is difficult to avoid being caught in the long run.  The relative's death certificate will eventually be checked against the voter registration records -- this is required by law nationwide -- and when the check finds that someone has voted from beyond the grave, the investigation focuses quickly on a household member or close relative.  

 

This type of fraud may result in a few extra votes being added to the certified count, because the fraud will not be discovered (and prosecuted) until later.

Can you identify the matching pairs in this exercise from Colorado's Signature Verification Guide ? Give it a try. Answers are included in the training guide.

Signature matching is one of the reforms being considered in Pennsylvania, and polls show that it is widely popular with voters of all parties.   But, even though matching signatures seems like common sense, there are many practical problems that come along with its use.  

  • Signature matching is not an exact science -- it's a judgment call.
  • Signature matching machines can only do an initial screening, matching 20-40% of signatures.  The rest have to be checked by an election worker, slowing the process.
  • Pennsylvania's proposal, (like most states requiring a signature match,) does not require training for election workers.
  • Someone's signature can change because of injury, illness, vision changes, or aging.
  • Young voters' signatures are challenged more often -- possibly because they rarely use cursive or sign documents, and their signatures are still evolving.
  • Signature matching results in the ballots of thousands of eligible voters  being rejected in states that require it.*
Although only a few cases of fraud have been found, politicians are reacting to public concern and framing the reforms as a way to increase voter confidence in our elections.  
Without Signature Matching

Out of 1.3 million mail-in votes cast in PA, fewer than 10 illegal votes were cast, and these were caught by record checks, without the need for signature matching.  

illegal votes
counted 
<10

Which option secures your vote?

How do you weigh the effects?

With Signature Matching   

More than 1,300,000 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in 2020.  A low estimate of the potential effect of signature matching is

legal votes
thrown out

~1,300* 
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* More on ballot rejection estimates
* More on ballot rejection estimates

*It is impossible to calculate an exact figure, since states use such different procedures. However, about 1% of mail-in ballots are rejected nationwide. Most are rejected because they are late, but the second most common reason is for missing or mis-matched signatures. Using a low estimate of 0.1% of ballots being rejected for a mismatched signature, we can estimate that 1,300 of PA's 1.3 million ballots would have been rejected for signature mismatch in 2020. That's 1,300 eligible voters who voted in good faith.  


 Read more here:   "Signed, Sealed, Delivered - Then Discarded" , The Atlantic October 21, 2020

B.  A suitcase full of ballots? How easy is large-scale fraud?
It is easy to imagine someone printing extra copies of the ballot and "stuffing the ballot box" by dropping them in the mail or leaving them at an elections office anonymously....UNTIL you realize how complicated election administration is, and how many cross checks and safeguards are built into the system. 

The first problem is the idea of duplicating "THE" ballot. Because there are so many precincts (1,300+ in Allegheny County alone,) and every precinct has its own distinct version of the ballot, the first question would be, " Which of the thousands of versions of "THE Pennsylvania ballot" should I duplicate?" 

 

Then there's the problem of submitting them.  Mail in ballots are only accepted in their official return envelopes, and each envelope has a unique barcode, identifying the voter who requested it. Ballots without the individually barcoded envelopes are discarded. 

 

Dropping off a suitcase or box of fraudulent ballots at the polling place or during the ballot counting process would also be very difficult. Polling places and ballot processing facilities are monitored by partisan and non-partisan observers, and sometimes by security cameras. 

 

And, adding the fraudulent votes to official counts would raise red flags when a precinct's ballot totals did not match turnout records. Careful records of voter turnout are kept for each precinct.


The more you learn about the details of election administration, the harder it is to believe claims of large-scale voter fraud.


Voter Turnout is tracked by precinct

Every ballot that is issued or collected must be requested by a verified, registered voter, by mail or at the polling place.


If you vote by mail, your ballot is mailed in a personalized envelope with a unique barcode that identifies your voter record.  When you return the ballot by mail, your turnout is recorded.

If you vote in-person, your turnout is recorded by poll workers.

Whether you vote by mail or in-person,  your turnout is linked to your precinct.

All ballots are identified with

a certain precinct.

Cross-checking the recorded voter turnout for the precinct will detect the extra ballots.

Ballots are tracked by precinct

There are over 1,300 precincts in Allegheny County alone, and each precinct has a unique version of the ballot.  

After votes are counted, results show how many of each precinct's ballots were cast.  This is compared with recorded voter turnout in the precinct- either in-person, or by mail.   

A suitcase full of duplicated ballots (even if it could get past security) would add votes to certain precincts without adding voters.   The mismatch would be easily detected in these precinct numbers.  
3.  A Look At Other States

Many of the election practices being debated in Pennsylvania are already used in some form in other states.  States are sometimes called the "laboratories of democracy," and it makes sense to look at what happens when different states "experiment" with different election methods.  
A.  No Excuse Mail-in Voting

In 1978, California became the first state to allow no-excuse mail-in voting. The percentage of California voters voting by mail rose steadily from under 10% to about 65% by 2018, and jumped to over 85% in the 2020 general election.




Pennsylvania allowed no-excuse mail-in voting for the first time in 2020. Almost 40% of voters chose to vote by mail, in part because of the pandemic.

Utah, a reliably red state, is an "all mail" state. All ballots are distributed by mail. There are no polling places...



...while New York, a reliably blue state, requires an excuse for mail-in voting.



How many states use Mail-in Voting?


Every state has some form of mail-in ballot.  16 states require an excuse for a voter to vote "absentee."  In these 16 states, an average of 9% of voters state an excuse, such as illness, disability, or being away from home for work, school, or military service and vote absentee by mail.  So, even in states without "no-excuse" mail-in voting, almost 1 in 10 voters vote by mail.  

Does no-excuse Mail-in Voting increase turnout?


Mail-in voting increases turnout slightly
(1-2%) in presidential or high-interest elections, and more significantly in local, primary and special elections where turnout is traditionally low.  

Does Mail-in Voting benefit one political party over another?

Mail-in voting does not change the vote-share of Republicans and Democrats.  Democrats were more likely to vote by mail in 2020, while Republicans were more likely to vote in-person, but this seems to represent a substitution of one form of voting for another.   In other words, it did not change "who" voted - just "how" they voted. 

The LWVPA supports the continuation of no-excuse, absentee voting.
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Learn more with these resources
Learn more with these resources

"Voting Outside the Polling Place: Absentee, All-Mail, and Other Voting at Home Options. National Conference of State Legislatures, 9/24/2020.


 "Universal vote-by-mail has no impact on partisan turnout or vote share", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020


"Voting by Mail and Absentee Voting" , MIT Election Data & Science Lab, 2021


Covid and the US Election: will the rise of mail-in voting affect the result?  Nature, October 23, 2020

B.  Primaries:  Closed, Open, and In Between


In Tennessee, voters register without choosing a party. All voters are unaffiliated and may vote in the Republican, Democratic, or other primary on election day.


Washington state uses a "Top Two" primary system. Candidates from all parties are listed on the same primary ballot. The top two vote-getters face off in the general election. This means that the two candidates running in November could be from the same party.

Arizona has partially open Primaries. Voters who are registered as Republicans or Democrats can only vote in their own primary, but unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in either primary race.


Pennsylvania has closed primaries. Voters can choose a party when they register to vote. Only voters who choose to register with the Democratic or Republican parties are able to vote in the primary election. Unaffiliated or "third-party" voters cannot vote.



Let's Open Primaries in PA


Copy this link to share: www.lwvpgh.org/docs.ashx?id=817991

The LWVPA supports opening Pennsylvania's primary to voters who are not registered with any party.  Here's why:

  • There are over 1,300,000 registered voters in PA without a party affiliation, and LWVPA believes they should have a voice in primaries.
  • Empowering these "independent" voters forces candidates to consider moderate views, rather than shaping their policies to please a partisan base.
  • In many smaller races, all of the candidates are members of the same party, and only one candidate will run in the fall.  In effect, the final result is decided in the primary when independent voters are excluded.
       <--- Learn more in the infographic

More information on the many types of primary races in the 50 states is available from the National Conference of State Legislatures:    State Primary Election Types
C. Automatic and Same-Day Voter Registration


North Dakota has no voter registration. Voters provide proof of citizenship and eligibility at their polling place each time they vote.


Maryland has same-day voter registration. Voters who provide a driver's license as ID at their polling place on Election Day are matched to a list of eligible, non-registered voters provided by the Maryland DMV and are permitted to vote on a regular ballot.


In Pennsylvania, voters must register 15 days before Election Day in order to vote in the upcoming election.

West Virginia has automatic voter registration. Anyone who applies for a driver's license or ID at the DMV is automatically registered to vote if they are eligible. Voters may opt out of registering.

The LWVPA supports same-day and automatic voter registration.  


4.  Additional Resources
When will ballots be available?  Has your polling place changed?  How many voters have requested mail-in ballots?  Will there be drop-boxes? ...

You can receive weekly email updates from the Allegheny County Elections Board during election seasons by subscribing here:    Subscribe to "Allegheny Votes" Newsletter
PA Election Law Hearings 2021

The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee held a series of hearings on Election Law during the winter and spring of 2021.  Recordings of these sessions are available at 
www.PAHouseGOP.com/electionlawhearings