Elections Government

PA’s Voting Law Filled With Obsolete Provisions, Troublesome Conflicts

Reporting has found Pennsylvania’s voting law is filled with obsolete provisions, troublesome conflicts. Take a look at what you need to know.

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By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA & Carter Walker of Votebeat

Credit: Daniel Fishel/Spotlight PA

Pennsylvania’s Election Code was written nearly 100 years ago, and some of its provisions are even older than that.

In the time since it became law, electricity has been widely adopted, technology has undergone several transformations, and evolving case law has altered the legal landscape around voting.

But as all that happened, much of the code has stayed the same, a review by Spotlight PA and Votebeat found. In many cases, the updates lawmakers have made have created inconsistencies and points of confusion.

Here are the key takeaways from our recent investigation:

You can’t rely on the code alone

Pennsylvania’s Election Code can be confusing and misleading. Many election directors told Spotlight PA and Votebeat that for someone to gain a full understanding of what is legal and what isn’t, they need to use secondary sources.

Election directors around the commonwealth said they rely on a combination of subscription legal reference services like WestLaw, their county solicitors, and an informal network of fellow election directors sharing advice.

Lycoming County election director Forrest Lehman said the code was “incredibly complicated” to learn.

“You’re reading a legal book that doesn’t necessarily present it in a very organized [way] and you’re just flipping through it,” he said. “Then you have to read all the footnotes that talk about some of the court cases but not all of them. Then you have to fill in gaps with the solicitor and other election directors.”

Several court cases have significantly changed the way elections are run in Pennsylvania, though many of these precedents aren’t reflected in the Election Code.

One of the most notorious examples relates to the enfranchisement of people convicted of felonies. The code still says that a person who has been in prison for a felony within the last five years cannot vote, even though a 2000 Commonwealth Court ruling, Mixon v. Commonwealth, ruled this provision unconstitutional.

That’s irrelevant

The world has changed a lot since 1937 — the last time the legislature undertook a major revamp of the voting law — but Pennsylvania’s Election Code still contains many rules that the passage of time has rendered obsolete.

One provision requires that a lantern or equivalent light source be placed in every polling place. This was written at a time when electricity was not universal, especially in rural areas.

An entire section of the code is dedicated to “voting machines,” a reference to mechanically operated devices like lever-action voting machines that have not been in use in Pennsylvania for roughly two decades.

And yet another section says elections are to be scheduled using Eastern Standard Time, not taking into account that the commonwealth now uses Daylight Savings Time during every spring primary election.

Reform isn’t easy

While many election directors would like to see comprehensive reform that modernizes the code, big overhauls have been elusive under Pennsylvania’s consistently divided government.

Joshua Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who studies elections, said most states don’t undertake comprehensive overhauls of their election laws. Rather, they make “reform-specific” changes to individual sections of their codes, like Pennsylvania did with Act 77.

That law, signed by former Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019, established no-excuse mail voting and is by far the most sweeping election change the commonwealth has made in recent years.

However, Act 77 created new code conflicts and questions. Attempts to fix these issues have not been successful because of disagreements in the divided legislature.

Other academics who spoke with Spotlight PA and Votebeat noted that other states have had an easier time passing voting legislation because party demographics in the state lean strongly one way or the other, and therefore the majority party isn’t concerned with losing power.

Read the complete investigation here.

About the author

Spotlight PA

Spotlight PA is dedicated to producing non­partisan investigative journalism about Pennsylvania government and urgent statewide issues. We are an independent watchdog unafraid to dig deep, fight for the truth and take on the powerful to expose wrongdoing and spur meaningful reform. We connect Pennsylvanians to their state, and to each other, through public service journalism that matters to their lives and is creatively told in the many modern, digital ways they consume their news.

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