Pennsylvania has enacted a massive overhaul of its election law, set to go into effect before the 2020 presidential contest.
The new legislation, which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law on Thursday, allows for earlier mail-in voting, the elimination of straight-party-ticket voting and authorizes funding to subsidize the purchase of new voting machines capable of keeping anonymous paper records, among other reforms.
In a statement, the governor’s office said the overhaul constituted the most significant change to election law in more than 80 years.
“This is the biggest change to our elections in generations and will strengthen our democracy by removing barriers to the voting booth and encouraging more people to vote,” Wolf said.
The state, which President Donald Trump won by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016, is widely expected to be a key battleground state in the 2020 election.
The reform bill passed both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature this week with bipartisan support.
“We want to ensure we have the most integrity in the system as we possibly can,” Mike Straub, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania House Republicans, told CNN Friday.
The new legislation lowers barriers to mail-in voting and extends the time before an election in which a citizen can register to vote. It also authorizes a $90 million bond to help offset the cost of new voting machines that keep a verifiable paper record.
The Pennsylvania Department of State announced last month that 76% of the state’s counties have started to switch to updated voting systems. In April 2018, the department set a December 31, 2019 deadline for all counties to choose systems with paper records.
The switch is expected to cost the state’s counties a total of between $125 million to $150 million, according to Democratic state senator and primary bill sponsor Lisa Boscola.
The machines are meant to ensure an accurate, fair and verifiable tally in the battleground state.
“What’s important is that people have faith in the system,” Pennsylvania State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican, told CNN Friday. “The elections process matters – it matters a great deal in a democracy.”
The elimination of straight party ticket voting – the option to quickly mark a ballot along party lines – was a win for Republicans, who had been pushing for such legislation.
“Instead of voting for a team, we are supposed to be voting for individuals,” Corman said Friday.
Boscola, a Democrat, agreed. “It’s antiquated to even be thinking that way,” Boscola said of straight-party voting. “It’s about the individual and not the party.”
The law eliminates a requirement that applicants for absentee ballots provide an excuse as to why they can’t make it to the polls.
“We never checked anyway,” Corman said.
It also allows those ballots to be requested or sent in up to 50 days before the election, and to be submitted by 8 p.m. on Election Day, giving the state the longest mail-in ballot period in the country. It was important, the senator said, to ensure that “no one’s left out.”
Boscola said she was excited at the move to so-called, “no excuse” absentee ballots, which effectively allowed for early voting from home.
“This is monumental change,” she said. “Now voters can go to their kitchen table, and the kitchen table becomes their voting booth.”
The new voting regulations will not impact next week’s municipal elections in the state, but will take effect for Pennsylvania’s April 2020 primary election.