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Antiquated state election law blamed for low turnout

| Sunday, May 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Fewer than one in five registered major party voters cast a ballot supporting a gubernatorial candidate on Tuesday, a figure some experts say Pennsylvania could improve if it overhauled the voter registration law.

Statewide turnout was just less than 17 percent for the primary, based on the number of registered Democratic and Republican voters who cast a ballot in the four-way Democratic gubernatorial race and uncontested GOP primary.

Barry Kauffman, director of the government watchdog Common Cause Pennsylvania, said midterm election turnout is usually lower than in presidential election years, but it's higher than for municipal and judicial races in odd-numbered years. He advocates for numerous policies meant to modernize voter and election laws in Pennsylvania, including same-day voter registration and online-based voter registration.

“It saves money, it makes thing more accurate, it makes things more efficient and it makes things easier for voters,” he said.

Allegheny County's turnout was 16.2 percent of 765,890 registered voters. Democrats voted at more than twice the rate as Republicans, at 19.8 percent compared with 8.3 percent. Westmoreland County also had 16.2 percent turnout ­— 20.7 percent among Democrats and 10.3 percent among Republicans in a pool of 211,688 registered voters.

Jonathan Brater, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said bills to make voter registration easier are a trend among state legislatures. About 25 percent of eligible voters nationwide are not registered.

“Registration is still the biggest barrier to voting,” he said. “The antiquated registration process we have is also a problem for the integrity of our elections.”

Same-day registration, which allows voters to sign up at a precinct on the day of the election, can increase turnout by as much as 7 percent, Brater said.

Pennsylvania's Senate unanimously passed a bill last year that would establish an online application for voters to register or update their information. It has yet to be scheduled for a vote in the House State Government Committee.

A Senate fiscal analysis shows it would cost the Department of State up to $300,000 to implement the system. Despite potential start-up costs, Brater said digitizing processes can save money over time. In Maricopa County, Ariz., online voter registration decreased application processing costs from 83 cents to 3 cents per application, he said.

Brater said such measures usually receive bipartisan support.

“It's not something that's happening in red or blue states; it's happening everywhere,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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