Voters have three choices if they want to cast a ballot early in Pennsylvania: be out of town on Election Day, be medically incapacitated or lie about one of the first two options.
Absentee balloting is the only way to vote early in the Keystone State, which is one of only 13 without some form of early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. To legally get an absentee ballot in Pennsylvania, you have to be out of town on Election Day or medically incapable of voting.
But many voters stoop to the third choice — fibbing about being out of town, according to state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh. Boscola, who chaired a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing Wednesday at the August Wilson Center, Downtown, said voters shouldn’t need an excuse to get an absentee ballot.
“I know certain people who (vote absentee) every single time, and they just say they’re going away,” Boscola said. “Now, come on. They’re actually kind of lying, or fibbing. Why not just open it up, keep them honest. No excuse.”
State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, who requested the hearing, is sponsoring a bill that would permit voting 15 days prior to a primary or general election at select polling places in each county. The polls would have to be open eight hours each weekday and a total of at least eight hours on weekends.
Fontana said he purposely called for the hearing six days before a presidential election to highlight the need for early voting in Pennsylvania. So far, 22 million people across the country — including President Obama and former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner — have voted early for Tuesday’s election.
“The whole point of this is to get more people to vote,” Fontana said. “I think it’s all about convenience. Our commonwealth is now one of only 13 states that does not only not offer early voting, but we also still require an excuse for absentee ballots.”
He blamed Republican majorities in the state House and Senate for holding up election reform.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said election reform would require a change in the state Constitution.
“People have one year to make a plan for one day. Is that really inconvenient?” Miskin said. “The fact is, on early voting, you need a constitutional change, and constituents have not been hammering the doors down saying, ‘We want to start voting in July.’ Do you really want to start those presidential advertisements in July?”
Clifford Bob, chair of Political Science at Duquesne University, said early voting studies indicate it doesn’t necessarily increase turnout.
“The bottom line in terms of benefit effects, as I see it, is that turnout effects are small,” he said. “Convenience effects are substantial, but they could magnify some of the problems that many complain about politics: partisanship, disproportionate influence of wealthy and educated voters and so forth.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald estimated early voting would cost Allegheny County about $300,000 per election. He said the state should pick up the tab.
“I want to make it as easy and accessible as I can for the voters of Allegheny County,” Fitzgerald said.
Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, noted that a big problem is that people would cast ballots before counties certify them. Candidates can be added or removed after votes are cast.
“I hate for that to be a detriment,” said Sen. Jay Costa, D-forest Hills. “I recognize the point. It’s important to raise it, but at some point you got to say this is it.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].