3 voting bills to get day in court

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 11:23 p.m.

Voter ID was just the beginning.

A trio of bills aimed at overhauling access to the ballot box in Pennsylvania will get a hearing on Thursday, when the Senate Democratic Policy Committee meets in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, at 10 a.m.

The bills would allow voters to cast ballots up to 15 days before Election Day; vote absentee without giving an excuse; and register on the same day as voting.

“It reflects modern life much better than the current situation does,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, who sponsored the absentee ballot bill in part because, in 2009, she missed her chance to vote because she was unexpectedly out of town on business.

The effects of laws such as these vary, according to a Tribune-Review examination of data from George Mason University's United States Elections Project and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In the 2012 election, 58.2 percent of the eligible population voted for president. Turnout inched to 58.3 percent in states with early voting, 60.4 percent in states with no-excuse absentee voting and 61.1 percent in states with same-day registration.

“If the goal is to increase turnout, the best proven way of doing so is same-day registration,” said Dan Tokaji, a lawyer and law professor at The Ohio State University whose practice and research focus on election law.

Thirty-two states allow early voting; 27 permit no-excuse absentee voting; and 10 allow same-day registration. Seven of those states and the District of Columbia allow all three, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Pennsylvania requires people to register 30 days before an election. Residents must vote on Election Day unless they sign an application for an absentee ballot because they're disabled, traveling, in the military or can meet other criteria.

“You look around the country and you see other states have done it. I don't see why we as a state don't want to do our part in trying to make it easier for people to vote,” said state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, who introduced the early voting bill.

Senate Republican leadership plans to review the bills, and spokesman Erik Arneson said it's “always good to encourage more people to participate” in elections.

House Republicans, however, are skeptical.

“Other states don't have the long, storied and documented voter fraud we do in Pennsylvania,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. charged six people with filing fraudulent voter-registration applications in 2008. Miskin cited a 2012 report by Philadelphia's Republican election commissioner that found voting machines in two wards recorded six more votes than the number of voters who signed in among other “irregularities” in the city.

Turzai led the push to require voters to present identification at the polls before being allowed to vote, but a court challenge has delayed its implementation. Democrats attacked it as an attempt by Republicans to suppress votes among constituencies friendly to Democrats, such as minorities and the poor. Turzai denied the claim.

“Our goal is and has been to protect the integrity of the vote, not open up the laws to further abuse,” Miskin said.

Sen. Lisa Boscola's same-day registration bill would require voters to present identification, said her chief of staff, Steve DeFrank.

Four of the five highest-turnout states in 2012 allowed same-day registration. Tokaji said there's “no evidence” to suggest it increased fraud. Pennsylvania's turnout ranked in the bottom half of all states.

“Some politicians don't want more people voting,” said Tokaji. “Generally speaking, more Republicans oppose (same-day registration) because they worry that it will have a more beneficial impact on Democrats, but actually the evidence doesn't show that to be the case either.”

Half of the states with same-day registration have Republican governors.

“It'll help whichever party is able to better mobilize their voters,” Tokaji said.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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