Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, November 2, 2023
Pennsylvania’s voting laws, enshrined in the Election Code, have seen minimal revision since their inception in 1937, leaving many of their provisions woefully obsolete in the 21st century. In a comprehensive investigation conducted by Spotlight PA and Votebeat, it became evident that some components of this electoral framework are even older than the code itself, creating confusion, inconsistencies, and difficulties for election officials who are tasked with upholding it.
In a world where electricity is ubiquitous, technology continually evolves, and case law adapts to the ever-changing legal landscape around voting, Pennsylvania’s Election Code has remained largely untouched, failing to keep pace with modern requirements. Key takeaways from this investigation shed light on the challenges and complexities of the state’s electoral regulations:
1. Code Complexity and Reliance on Secondary Sources
Election directors across Pennsylvania voiced their concerns about the complexity and ambiguity of the Election Code. Many asserted that a full understanding of what is legal and what is not necessitated referring to secondary sources. These sources include subscription-based legal reference services like Westlaw, guidance from county solicitors, and informal networks of election directors sharing advice.
Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County’s election director, described the code as “incredibly complicated” and emphasized the need to piece together information from various sources, including court cases, to navigate the intricacies of the code. Unfortunately, many of these court precedents and important legal changes aren’t reflected within the code, leading to inconsistencies and challenges in its interpretation.
One notable example pertains to the enfranchisement of individuals with prior felony convictions. The code still restricts voting rights for individuals who have been incarcerated for felonies within the last five years, despite a 2000 Commonwealth Court ruling, Mixon v. Commonwealth that declared this provision unconstitutional.
2. Outdated Provisions and Irrelevance
The world has undergone significant transformation since 1937, yet the Election Code retains numerous rules that are now obsolete. For instance, one provision mandates the presence of a lantern or equivalent light source in every polling place, a requirement rooted in a time when electricity was not universally available, particularly in rural areas.
Another section of the code devotes substantial attention to “voting machines,” which refers to mechanically operated devices like “lever-action voting machines” that have been out of use in Pennsylvania for nearly “two decades.” Similarly, the code dictates that elections should be scheduled based on Eastern Standard Time, neglecting the fact that Pennsylvania now observes Daylight Saving Time during every spring primary election.
3. Challenges of Reform
Efforts to reform and modernize Pennsylvania’s Election Code have been stymied by the state’s consistently divided government. While many election directors and experts advocate for comprehensive reform, substantial overhauls have remained elusive.
According to election law expert “Joshua Douglas,” a professor of law at the University of Kentucky, the majority of states do not engage in comprehensive overhauls of their election statutes. Instead, they opt for making targeted modifications to particular sections of their laws, focusing on specific issues. A prime example of this approach is Pennsylvania’s Act 77, which implemented no-excuse mail voting.
Act 77, signed by former Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019, marked a significant change in the state’s election laws. However, this reform created new conflicts and questions within the Election Code. Attempts to resolve these issues have been hampered by disagreements in the divided legislature.
While Pennsylvania’s election laws remain in need of modernization, other states have experienced an easier path to passing voting legislation, often owing to the clear partisan leanings of their major political parties, reducing concerns about potential power shifts.
The antiquated and complex Election Code poses challenges for election officials and underscores the pressing need for comprehensive reform to ensure that Pennsylvania’s electoral processes are transparent, accessible, and aligned with the realities of the 21st century.