Pennsylvania Rep. Kotik pushing for 'postal voting' legislation
August 13, 2012 8:00 AM
By Tom Barnes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG -- State Rep. Nick Kotik is pushing for action on a bill that would allow Pennsylvanians to vote by mail if they want to, rather than having to stand in line at a polling place and show voter ID.
The Robinson Democrat knows the idea of "postal voting" is a long shot in Pennsylvania, since Republicans don't like the idea and they control both the Legislature and the governor's office.
But Mr. Kotik claims the ongoing legal and political wrangling over the state's new voter ID law -- which requires voters to prove who they are with a photo ID every time they vote -- bolsters the argument for giving voters the option of voting by mail rather than having to travel to their designated polling place.
"This is the right time to pass this bill," he said. "Voting by mail could end all the massive confusion this law stands to cause."
A number of states -- including Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Florida and California -- already have decided to offer postal voting as an alternative to going to a polling place, he said. In Oregon and Washington, polling places are no longer used at all -- all voting is done by mail-in ballot.
Mr. Kotik contends that having the option of postal voting could lessen or eliminate the long lines at the polls that Allegheny County elections officials have predicted for the November election, as officials at each polling place take time to check IDs.
But some critics fear that voting by mail could lead to fraud, since election secrecy theoretically could be breached without the privacy of a polling place. Advocates counter that the convenience of letting voters mail in their ballots would increase the number of people who vote.
"Postal voting stands to increase voter turnout, provide for greater vote-counting accuracy and improve voter satisfaction,'' Mr. Kotik argued.
He introduced House Bill 1382 last year but it's been stuck in the GOP-run State Government Committee ever since.
Mr. Kotik, like many Democrats and liberals, doesn't like the new voter photo ID law. It was approved by Republicans in the spring -- without any Democrats voting for it -- and then signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Proponents say it's an effort to crack down on "voter fraud," but they've been unable to cite even one case of such fraud in Pennsylvania.
Many people have drivers licenses from PennDOT, but estimates by critics say as many as 1 million registered voters may not be able to vote in November because they don't have acceptable photo IDs. The Corbett administration has given lower estimates, one as low as 89,000.
For years Pennsylvania has offered absentee ballots for voters who know they can't be at a polling place on Election Day, such as being overseas, in military service or hospitalized.
Mr. Kotik said that absentee ballots, while useful, "are reserved for a certain set of criteria, while my bill would overhaul the entire voting-by-mail system, opening up postal voting opportunities to all voters."
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House GOP leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, opposes postal voting. He said there have been "historic problems" with absentee ballots in Pennsylvania and a criminal election fraud case in Florida related to postal voting.
"This 'mail order' election concept is filled with concerns for the integrity of the vote," he said. "The only real confusion over Voter ID is the disenfranchising rhetoric of Democrats and their 'rent-a-groups,' " such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU represents several elderly and minority voters from the Philadelphia area who filed a lawsuit against voter ID. A Commonwealth Court decision is due this week.
But Mr. Turzai didn't help his cause when he recently told a group of Republicans that the voter ID law is a tool to help GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania this year.
Tim Potts, a former House Democratic aide who now runs a citizens group called Democracy Rising PA, called postal voting "a hugely important issue" and urged the Legislature to consider it.
"We need to work on both ends of the [voting rights] policy spectrum and not just one," he said. "We should make it impossible for people to vote who shouldn't vote but make it easy and convenient for people who should vote."
The Kotik bill would require a voter to apply in writing to his county clerk at least seven days before an election or in person by 3 p.m. on the day before an election. The ballot is either mailed in or put into a special locked box for collection. The county clerk then compares the voter's signature on the postal ballot with the one in the state voter registration system for verification.
Legislators return in late September for the last few days of the current session. If the bill dies by Nov. 30, Mr. Kotik will try again when the new session starts in January.