The Senate Democratic Policy Committee gathered in Pittsburgh Thursday to hear from the public and other elected officials on proposed changes to voting in the commonwealth. State lawmakers are considering measures that would allow for online voter registration and expand early voting.
“Also same-day voter registration, so you can just go to the poll, register to vote, and then vote on that particular day,” said Sen. Matt Smith (D-37). “No fault absentee voting would allow people to get their absentee ballot and then send it back in to their local county division of elections.”
Currently, a registered voter must give a reason, such as illness or absence from the county on Election Day, in order to get an absentee ballot. These measures, according to Smith, could lead to increased voter turnout.
Sen. Lisa Bascola pointed to recent elections. In last year’s presidential election, 67 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In the 2010 governor’s race less than half of registered voters cast ballots, and in the “off-year” 2011 election 23.1 percent voted, a number she called deplorable.
One of those testifying in front of the committee was John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics in Akron, Ohio, which did a study of early voting following that state’s allowance of no-fault absentee ballots.
“The easier you make it for people to vote, the more people you’ll get voting,” Green said. “That’s not the only factor in an election. There’s a whole lot of things that contribute to turnout, but that does seem to be a strong finding in the literature.”
Green said since 2006, when Ohio switched to no-fault absentee ballots, voter turnout has steadily increased.
“By the 2010 election, over a quarter of the ballots cast in Ohio that year were absentee,” he said. “In the 2012 presidential election, more than a third of the ballots cast were cast absentee.”
But expanding the use of absentee ballots and allowing online voter registration and early voting did raise some concerns of voter fraud.
“We certainly believe that security mechanisms can be put into place," Smith said. "Many other states, 25 to 30 states have some form of early voting or online registration, things that would make it easier for people. Certainly we can put the security mechanisms in place to make sure this is done the same way, so I don’t think that’s a really strong argument against what we’re doing.”
Testimony also came from representatives of the Urban League of Young Professionals, Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also addressed the committee.