Polling place

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HARRISBURG – With Tuesday expected to bring hotly contested state and federal races in Pennsylvania, state officials say voters should know their rights when they head to the polls.

“Voters enjoy certain protections under state and federal law as they carry out their constitutional right to vote,” Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres said. “They should be aware of those rights.”

The Department of State has released the following tips regarding voter rights in Pennsylvania:

• Only first-time voters, or those voting for the first time in a new precinct, must show ID. 

Acceptable ID includes both photo and nonphoto ID.  Registered first-time voters who do not bring ID have a right to vote with a provisional ballot, which preserves the vote while the county board of elections determines if the voter is eligible. The county must issue its decision within seven days of the election.

• If a voter’s name is not in the poll book, poll workers should call the County Board of Elections to see if the voter’s name was left out of the poll book inadvertently. Registered voters who are in the wrong polling place should go to the correct polling place to vote. A voter who believes he or she is registered in the precinct and should be listed in the poll book may cast a provisional ballot.

• If a voter is challenged on the basis of identity or residency, the voter may vote normally by signing a challenge affidavit and producing a witness who is a registered voter in the precinct. If the voter cannot or does not want to produce a witness, the voter may cast a provisional ballot.

Friday is the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned so they can be counted in the election. As one indication of how much interest there is in this year’s election, Pennsylvania voters have already submitted at least 22,000 more absentee ballots than were submitted in the 2014 midterm election, said Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Department of State.

Democrats have only a slight edge, having returned 54,571 absentee ballots, compared to the 54,125 turned in by Republicans. Independents have turned in another 10,180. Those figures don’t include Allegheny County, because officials in that county don’t provide the state with a tally of absentee ballots prior to submitting them for the election, she said.

There were 8,331 provisional ballots submitted by voters who’d encountered problems at the poll in the last midterm election in 2014. There were almost 3.5 million total votes cast in that election. Of those provisional ballots, 2,878 were rejected, including 1,626 ballots for people who were not registered to vote and 1,055 ballots for people who were trying to vote in the wrong place, according to a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 

Sixty-two provisional ballots were rejected because election officials determined those individuals had already voted, that report found.

Advocates for voting accessibility say the state has yet to embrace many of the reforms in place in other states that would relieve some of the Election Day stress on the system. 

On top of that, Pennsylvania’s elections are run by the counties and rely heavily on volunteer poll workers, said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a coalition of groups working to get the state to update its election system.

“It’s not going to guarantee a uniform experience for voters across the state,” he said.

When voters encounter problems while trying to vote, it’s often because pollworkers misunderstand the law, rather than they are intentionally trying to disenfranchise people, Murphy said.

Gov. Tom Wolf has called on the counties to replace their voting machines with more secure equipment by the 2020 election.

Murphy said that upgrade could help make polling locations more efficient and by taking some of the decisions “out of the hands of pollworkers.”

Watchdog groups plan to have resources available to advise voters who encounter problems when they get to the polls, said Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania.

Sims said there will be poll monitors in some areas of the state, but voters who encounter problems at the polls anywhere in the state can get connected to independent advisers and attorneys, if needed, by calling 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).

In addition, voters can confirm that they are registered to vote and what polling place they are supposed to visit by going on the state’s votespa.com website.

While Pennsylvania doesn’t require voters to show identification unless it’s their first visit to that polling location, the state’s record overall on voter access is mixed, at best, Sims said.

Many other states have rolled out things like same-day voter registration, no-fault absentee ballots and early voting that make it easier for people to get to the polls, he said. Because Pennsylvania lacks those mechanisms to make voting more accessible, a recent ranking by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, put the state at 44th in the country in terms of accessibility of the ballot.

“We can’t ignore that voting access affects turnout,” Sims said. “Everyone ought to be in favor of helping people to vote.”

He said advocates will be lobbying to get changes like no-fault absentee ballots and early voting considered by the state Legislature in the upcoming legislative session.

The goal, Sims said, will be to have the changes in place before the 2020 presidential election.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.