State of Democracy Spotlight Series: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is One of the Few Remaining States that Does Not Process Mail Ballots in Advance; Election Result Delays are a Certainty in November

The inability to pre-process a large volume of mail ballots in Pennsylvania in 2020 led to delayed election results, and combined with delays in other key states, opened a gap for misinformation and false theories of election fraud to fill. Despite calls from election officials in the state, the legislature in Pennsylvania failed to act and allow the advanced processing of mail ballots necessary to prevent delayed results.

Unsettled Legal and Policy Questions in Pennsylvania Around Mail Voting Will Lead to Voter Confusion and Potential Election Challenges

In 2019 Pennsylvania passed a bipartisan law establishing a system of no-excuse absentee voting in the state, which was heavily utilized by voters in the 2020 election. However, gaps and grey areas in the law — some of which are outlined below — led to a raft of legal challenges surrounding the 2020 election. The following gaps in the law have not been addressed in the two years since and the situation is ripe for a repeat in November, with the potential for massive voter confusion, further lawsuits, and election challenges.

Ballot Drop Boxes

Ballot drop boxes are a secure and popular option used by millions of voters during the 2020 election. However, following the 2020 election, drop boxes became a target for election conspiracies and false allegations of voter fraud, despite the fact that there is no evidence for these claims.

Ballot Curing

Ballot curing refers to practice and policy where voters are given an opportunity to correct issues with their mail ballots, such as missing or incorrect signatures, in order to ensure their votes are counted. Twenty-six states currently require that voters be allowed to correct these sorts of errors with their ballots.

Undated Mail Ballots

Yet another gap in Pennsylvania law that will impact voters in the state this November relates to the counting of mail ballots if the voter fails to put a date on the outer envelope of the ballot, or provides an incorrect date.

Control of Pennsylvania Government to Be Decided in November Will Have a Significant Impact on Future Voting Policies

While the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania has dominated much of the headlines, control of the governorship and state legislature is also up for grabs this November. The party that ends up controlling the state government following this year’s election will have a significant impact on voting policies in Pennsylvania going forward.

Pennsylvania Ranks Below Average in Terms of Voting and Election Policies

Pennsylvania ranks 34th in the nation in our Democracy Tally for its voting, election, and democracy policies. Democracy Maps currently tracks 45 laws and policies for each state, which inform this tally.

Voter Registration

Pennsylvania ranks just above average in the policy area of voter registration.

Representation and Participation

Pennsylvania ranks below average in the policy area of Representation and Participation.

  • The state has a strong policy for the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people in which voting rights are automatically restored upon release from incarceration.
  • Pennsylvania is one of only nine states where the primary system is completely closed to Independent voters.
  • Pennsylvania also ranks just above average in terms of voter registration rate (22nd in the nation at 88%) and turnout (18th in the nation at 71%). These numbers could be improved by implementing policies like automatic voter registration.

In-Person Voting

Pennsylvania is also below average in the policy area of In-Person Voting.

  • The state has an above-average number of early voting days (up to 43 days).
  • Pennsylvania also has a non-strict ID policy, where voters can present numerous forms of non-photo ID and no additional steps are required for their ballot to be counted if they do not have the requested ID. The voter ID policy could well change next year, as discussed earlier in this spotlight.
  • The state’s below-average ranking in this area results from a lack of policies like curbside voting for disabled voters. Curbside voting allows voters who are unable to physically enter their polling place to request that a ballot be brought outside of the polling place to an accessible location such as a vehicle. Twenty-seven states and D.C. currently require or allow curbside voting.

Mail Voting

Pennsylvania ranks above average in the category of Mail Voting.

Election Security

Pennsylvania ranks above average in terms of election security.

  • The state conducts routine post-election audits that are independent and nonpartisan, which helps to secure vote counts and improve confidence in results.
  • Pennsylvania could improve the security of its elections by adopting best practice risk-limiting audits, which are also nonpartisan and use statistical methods to verify election results.

Independence and Integrity

Pennsylvania is one of the lowest-ranked states in our Democracy Maps in the area of Independence and Integrity.

Pennsylvania will be a state to watch this November, with a Senate seat and governorship being decided on by voters, as well as control of the state legislature. Unsettled legal questions and gaps in state law related to mail voting have led to a situation where voters are unsure of the rules and may not have their ballot counted depending on the county they live in. The election will also have a significant impact on voting rules in Pennsylvania going forward, as Republicans are set to enact a gamut of restrictions if they gain full control of the state government. With the health of Pennsylvania’s democracy already below average, the 2022 election will decide if the state’s democracy will rebound or continue to decline in the years ahead.

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Democracy Maps

Democracy Maps

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Democracy Maps tracks more than 40 laws and policies on elections and voting. Project of Movement Advancement Project, an independent, nonprofit think tank.