If you want to vote more easily, you gotta move

Posted: April 29, 2014

YO, Pennsylvania voters!

If you lived in a state where your political leaders actually cared what you think, you could vote in the May 20 primary today, tomorrow, later this week or anytime up to and including Election Day.

Oh yes, you could.

A majority of states (33) - including neighbors New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia - allow early voting up to 45 days prior to elections.

No excuses or justifications needed.

But here in the cradle of democracy? Not so much.

Also, if you lived in any of 27 states that allow no-questions-asked absentee ballots, you could vote at your own mailbox.

Easy, right?

The list of states making this possible includes bigger states (California and Florida), smaller states (Maine and South Dakota) and neighbors (New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland).

The birthplace of American independence? Not on the list.

Oh, and if you lived in a really progressive state like Washington, Oregon or Colorado, you could vote by mail all the time.

Those states send ballots to registered voters prior to every election.

(And, just think, in Washington and Colorado you could smoke a doobie while making up your mind - which might help.)

Six states allow "permanent absentee voting," meaning you can get an absentee ballot mailed to you automatically every election.

And, yeah, I know: Mail-in voting here means forgoing the fun of watching fights at Philly polling places, busted machines and lost tallies. But imagine the convenience and cost savings.

What's that? Not registered?

Well, in Pennsylvania you're done. Deadline for the May primary was April 21.

But if you lived in any of 11 states allowing same-day registration and voting, you could go to the polls, register and vote.

Perhaps it's coincidence, but two states with same-day registration since the 1970s - Minnesota and Wisconsin - traditionally lead the nation in voter turnout.

In 2012, both states' turnout topped 72 percent. Pennsylvania's was 59 percent.

There's legislation here to allow same-day registration. It's been gathering dust in House and Senate committees since it was introduced in January 2013.

That's because election reform could mean more citizen participation and thereby endanger the status quo in a state where status quo is a tightly held talisman.

Power tends to protect itself.

This gets me to the 1.06 million voters who will not vote in the primary because they can't.

They're registered "no affiliation" or "other." Almost all are independent voters, a thought apparently so repugnant to our leaders that we don't officially acknowledge the word.

So much for the birthplace of independence.

We are (of course) among a minority of states (17) that do not allow independent voters to vote in primaries - despite the fact that their taxes pay for elections, same as everybody else's.

Now, as a matter of full disclosure, research on some voting reforms is mixed.

A 2013 study by University of Wisconsin political scientists suggests that turnout drops 3 to 4 percentage points in early-voting states. They blame no voter-mobilization efforts, no general buzz and no ramp-up of TV ads.

But other research shows that turnout bumps up 3 to 4 percentage points in states with same-day registration.

And study of all-mail voting so far shows no effect on turnout.

But, come on: Pennsylvania, by any measure, is way behind the times when it comes to making voting easier and, in the case of independents, fairer.

What we do here is battle in court (for years) to join only eight other states, none in the Northeast, requiring photo-ID or extra measures after Election Day to vote.

That legal fight goes on. Reforms languish. And a state that should, given its history, stand as a national model of civic engagement stays seated.

H.L. Mencken once called voting pointless: "If it made any difference, it probably would be illegal."

Maybe that's our next stop.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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