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Bill eliminates straight-party voting

GOP-sponsored legislation awaiting Wolf’s signature

Barring a gubernatorial veto, an option used by more than 1 in 2 Blair County voters last November won’t be available when people go to the polls this fall.

A Republican-sponsored Elec­tion Code bill passed by the Legislature and sitting on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk would eliminate straight-party voting, which accounted for 54 percent of the ballots cast in Blair County last November.

The bill also extends the absentee ballot deadline and provides money for new voting machines.

If approved, the changes would go into effect this fall, allowing election officials and voters to adapt before Democrats and Republicans jockey for the state in the 2020 presidential race and other contests.

They would be the biggest changes to state election law in decades.

In the 2016 presidential election, 47 percent of the votes cast in Blair County were straight party votes, according to results of the county elections office.

Some members of Wolf’s party railed against the change, saying they feared that eliminating straight-party voting would stifle the voices of minorities, the poor and people with disabilities.

Republicans pushed for it, Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said, because in 2018, voters were upset with President Donald Trump and voted straight party Democrat, perhaps not intending to oust their federal representatives in the House and Senate who they actually liked.

“In the last election cycle, we had Republicans in the House and Senate in the southeast. But a lot of people were upset with Trump, and they voted straight Democrat, and Republicans lost a lot of seats in southeast,” Ward said.

“I think the thought behind this is if people were more educated on what party the person they wanted to vote for belonged to, it would be more representative of people’s true intentions,” Ward added.

Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, said that while Republicans were pushing Senate Bill 48, he philosophically agrees that Pennsyl­vania needs to end its archaic status as one of only eight states that still permit the option of straight-party voting.

“The people I talk to in Cambria County are upset, if not downright disgusted, at the failure of both political parties to compromise and govern effectively,” Burns said. “They are tired of politicians on both sides of the political spectrum constantly digging their heels in and refusing to work together — and they want that to change. I believe that ending straight-party voting will help accomplish that, because everyone will be forced to pay closer attention to the actual person running for elected office.”

Supporters noted that voters would still be able to vote along party lines, and that forcing people to select individual candidates would encourage them to research the races.

But if voters have to go through each contest, it will take more time at the polls, said Blair County Director of Elections Sarah Seymour.

“It may have set up — especially during presidential elections — long lines. I see it taking longer for voters to vote,” she said.

Blair County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Gillian Kratzer, said the lines would be an issue in larger cities.

“It is an issue of being able to vote quickly. It’s not a big deal here but in larger cities. If you get longer lines and that becomes a barrier for people who can’t stand in line for hours … that is the reason why Democratic lawmakers voted against … to make sure they weren’t unintentionally creating a barrier for people,” she said.

“Given the concentrations of partisanship in cities where you have more Democrats in large areas, the effect would fall disproportionately on Democrats at the end of the day. The most important thing is everyone gets to exercise their right to vote. If this impedes that right in any way, then it is a bad bill.”

Blair County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Foreman supports the measure and offered his opinion on why he thinks lawmakers passed it.

“My supposition is that Republicans are in favor of the selection process because it inhibits any ability to line up uneducated voters just to pull a lever,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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