Act 77 Makes Historic Changes to PA Election Code
On October 31, 2019, Governor Wolf signed Act 77 of 2019 into law. The Act is an historic election reform bill that makes the most significant improvements to Pennsylvania’s elections in more than 80 years. Act 77 allows more convenient and secure voting. Most voters can now vote by mail-in ballot, and voters will have more time to register to vote and to return their absentee or mail-in ballots. There are a number of other improvements, which are summarized below:
(MAIL-IN VOTING APPLICATION)
You may now vote by mail-in ballot, unless you qualify as an absentee voter, in which case you must vote by absentee ballot. If you want to vote by mail you must apply for a mail-in ballot. You do not need to provide a reason or excuse if you want to use a mail-in ballot. The county must receive your application for a mail-in ballot by 5:00 p.m. on the Tuesday before the election.
You can return your voted mail-in ballot by mailing it to your county board of elections using the envelope provided, or you can drop it off in person at the board of election’s office. Whichever way you choose, the County must receive your voted ballot by 8:00 p.m. on election day in order for it to be counted.
You may also ask to be placed on a permanent mail-in voter list. If you are on this list, you will have a mail-in ballot application mailed to you by the first Monday in February each year. If you complete and return the application, the county will send you ballots in the mail for all the elections that take place that year, as well as for any special election held through the third Monday in February of the next year. For example, if you return your completed mail-in application in February 2020, you will automatically receive a ballot for the April 28, 2020, Primary and the November 3, 2020, General Election, as well as ballots for any special elections held on or before February 15, 2021.
If you are sent a mail-in ballot and the county receives your voted ballot by the deadline (8:00 p.m. on election day), you may not vote at your polling place. Your vote is considered final at that point. However, if you mailed your ballot too late, or you aren’t sure whether the county received your voted ballot in time, you may be able to vote a provisional ballot at your polling place. If you were sent a mail-in ballot, but your polling place has no record of having received it, you may vote by provisional ballot. However, if the county does receive your voted mail-in ballot in time, that ballot, not your provisional ballot, will be counted.
Remember, you may always return your mail-in ballot at the county board of election’s office by 8:00 p.m. on election day.
Finally, counties are authorized to begin processing mail-in applications more than 50 days before the election. Beginning 50 days before the election, counties must begin transmitting mail-in ballots as soon as the ballot is certified and the ballots are available. Counties may await the result of a court proceeding that would affect the content of ballots before delivering mail-in ballots, but in any case, counties must begin to send out mail-in and absentee ballots no later than the second Tuesday before the election.
Voter Registration Deadline
The deadline to register to vote is now 15 days before an election, rather than 30 days. If your voter registration application is denied, the deadlines to appeal the decision have also changed.
(ABSENTEE BALLOT APPLICATION)
The deadline for a county to receive a regular civilian absentee ballot is now 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Regular civilian absentee ballots received after this time will not be counted unless a Court has extended the deadline.
If you are sent a regular civilian absentee ballot and the county receives your voted ballot by the deadline (8:00 p.m. on election day), you may not vote at your polling place. Your vote is considered final at that point. However, if you mailed your ballot too late, or you aren’t sure whether the county received your voted ballot in time, you may be able to vote a provisional ballot at the polling place. If you were sent a regular civilian absentee ballot, but your polling place has no record the ballot was voted and received, you may vote by provisional ballot. However, if the county does receive your voted ballot in time, that ballot, not your provisional ballot, will be counted. Remember, you may always return your absentee ballot at the county board of elections office by 8:00 p.m. on election day.
The process for obtaining an emergency absentee ballot has been simplified. More than one voter may now designate the same person to deliver their ballot. For example, the same hospital employee may deliver ballots for multiple patients.
Counties must now process absentee applications beginning 50 days before the election. Counties may wait for the result of a court proceeding that would affect what’s on the ballots before delivering absentee ballots. In any case, counties must begin, at the latest, to deliver absentee ballots by the second Tuesday before the election.
Finally, if you have a permanent disability, you may ask to be placed on a permanent absentee voter list. If you are on this list, you will have an absentee ballot application mailed to you by the first Monday in February each year. If you complete and return the application, the county will send you ballots in the mail for all the elections that take place that year, as well as for any special election held through the third Monday in February of the next year. For example, if you return your completed absentee application in February 2020, you will automatically receive a ballot for the April 28, 2020, Primary and the November 3, 2020, General Election, as well as ballots for any special elections held on or before February 1, 2021.
No Straight-Party Voting
You no longer have a shortcut straight-party button to vote for all candidates of one party. However, this change does not prevent you from selecting only candidates from one party. It simply removes the shortcut button option. If you want to vote for all candidates of one party, you will have to select the candidates one at a time.
No Stickers to Vote for Write-in Candidates
You are not allowed to use stickers or paste-on labels for write-in candidates because the ballot-scanning machines cannot read them and may become jammed. The law now says that write-in names may be written or stamped.
Circulators of Nomination Petitions
Circulators of nomination petitions no longer need to be residents of the election district where they circulate petitions, though they must still be a registered voter in Pennsylvania. If you are going to circulate petitions, you must now complete a statement under penalty of perjury for signature pages, instead of a notarized affidavit.
Circulators of Nomination Papers
Act 77 codifies caselaw relating to nomination papers filed by minor political party and political-body candidates seeking to be placed on the ballot. Circulators of nomination papers do not need to be registered voters in Pennsylvania or Pennsylvania residents. In addition, if you are going to circulate nomination papers, you must complete a statement under penalty of perjury for signature pages, instead of a notarized affidavit.
Bond funding – $90 million
The Act authorizes the Department of State to apply to the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority (PEDFA) for a bond issuance up to $90 million. The proceeds of the bond will be used to fund a grant program that will reimburse counties for 60 percent of the costs of their new voting systems. The Act also provides that any money left over after all counties have been reimbursed can be used by counties to purchase election security equipment.
Census/Redistricting Blackout Period
This act initiates a voting district (or precinct) freeze until after the decennial census. Starting December 31, 2019, counties may not alter (with few exceptions) a voting district until November 30, 2020, or until all judicial appeals to the 2022 Congressional Redistricting Plan are resolved, whichever occurs later.
County Ballot Printing
Now, counties will need to print at least 10 percent more ballots than the greatest number of ballots cast in the last three elections of the same type (Election types include municipal primary, midterm, general, etc.). The exception is in presidential years, when they will be required to print at least 15 percent more than the greatest number of ballots cast in the last three presidential elections. Counties may choose to print more ballots than the minimum required number.
Canvassing of Ballots
Absentee and mail-in ballots must now be counted centrally at the county board of elections office. They will no longer be sent to polling places and counted there. Canvassing (or counting) must begin on the third day after election day and must be finished within eight days after the election.
Counties must keep additional public records for absentee and mail-in ballots. They must keep a record of the following dates:
- the date the county receives the application
- the date the application is approved or rejected
- the date the county mails or delivers the ballot and
- the date the completed ballot is received
Decertification of Voting Systems
Please note that this section does not take effect until 180 days after October 31, 2019, and does not impact in any way the current decertification and replacement of voting systems in process across Pennsylvania.
The Department of State certifies voting systems that are used in Pennsylvania and has the authority to decertify those machines. Act 77 says that the Department may not decertify a voting system that is being used by 50 percent of counties, unless it submits a written plan to the General Assembly at least 180 days in advance. The written plan must contain:
- The reason for the disapproval or decertification
- The estimated cost to replace the decertified voting systems
- A plan for covering the costs of the new systems
- A plan for replacing the decertified voting systems
- The effective date for the decertification of old systems