A fix for long lines at the polls? PA’s getting mail-in voting for 2020

You’ll have 50 days before the election to finish and submit your ballot.

Mail-in ballots are already used in California and several other states

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

New voting machines debuted across Pennsylvania on Nov. 5, following a mandate by Governor Tom Wolf to upgrade systems before the 2020 election. There were a number of growing pains — with the most notable being slow-moving lines piling up at the polls.

In Philadelphia, wait times as long as an hour and a half sent some frustrated voters home before casting their ballots on the new ExpressVote XL touchscreen machines.

Turnout in the city was relatively high for an off-year election, according to unofficial results, but there’s little doubt the top-ticket presidential race will bring out even more voters.

“This is the longest it’s ever taken me to vote,” West Philly resident Bianca Fiscella told Billy Penn about her experience on Nov. 5. “What happens next year when turnout is [three times] as many?”

Local and state officials hope wait times will be cut down dramatically thanks to a new voting reform package signed into law by Gov. Wolf last month. The gamechanger? Mail-in voting.

Up to now, Pa. voters have to meet certain qualifications to vote by absentee ballot through the mail. Under the newly passed raft of voting reforms, the mail-in option will be open to everyone. You can request a ballot up to 50 days before Election Day — and submit it as late as 8 p.m. when polls close that evening.

That means if you plan ahead, you’ll be able to vote leisurely from your couch instead of trying to squeeze in a trip to your polling place before or after work.

“There’s evidence from other states that adding the vote by mail option will alleviate some of the problems with long lines at the polls,” said J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Wolf. “This [50-day window] will be one of the longest mail-in periods in the country.”

Voting participation has increased in places like Colorado, Oregon and others that offer early or no-excuse absentee ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The total number of voters casting mail-in ballots nationwide was more than 24 million in the 2016 election — up from about 10 million in 2004.

Pennsylvania’s expanded mail-in option will roll out in time for the 2020 primary in May.

Voters will still have to apply for the ballot, which can be done online or in person. The ballots themselves are paper, so won’t be submittable online — no waiting until the last minute.

Along with mail-in ballots, Pa.’s new voting reform package includes changes that critics say could increase wait time at the polls:

Straight ticket voting — where you push a single button to vote for all candidates in one party, rather than selecting for each race individually — will no longer be available.

Wolf originally wanted to preserve the vote-your-party option because it’s faster and he was worried long lines could discourage participation, said spokesperson Abbott, especially in urban areas. The governor’s Republican critics accused him of partisan trickery.

Abbott noted voting time changes from election to election. This year’s races in Philadelphia and many of the surrounding suburbs included dozens of candidates names packed on to the ballot. Additionally, there was a long list of retention questions for judicial races — those yes/no questions that decide whether to keep local and state judges on the bench for another term.

“That’s a lot of questions for people to answer while they’re also learning to use new machines,” Abbott said.

The Pa. Department of State is working with the commonwealth’s 67 counties to determine what fixes need to be made, per Abbott — which may include funding for additional voting machines in high-density districts.

Mail-in voting will require education to get voters on board, which will take a concerted effort from city and state election officials.

The Philly City Commissioners said they’re still working out the details.

“We always encourage people to vote in any and all means available to them,” said Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio. “Specific plans on what we will be doing next election will be made after we finish up this election.”