By Allie Amado
Absentee voting dates back to the Civil War, when soldiers mailed ballots to family members to cast by proxy in their name. These practices became official in the 1900s when states established processes to allow ballots to be mailed directly to election officials if they had a state-approved excuse for casting an absentee ballot. California was the first state to eliminate the excuse requirement for voting by mail in 1980, followed by other western states, some of which have implemented a permanent mail-in voting process. In 1996, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas opened their election process by permitting in-person early voting in satellite polling places across the state. In 2001, a challenge to Oregon’s no-excuse absentee ballots, in Voting Integrity Project, Inc., v. Keisling, resulted in the holding that early voting is legal, despite the federal law setting a uniform day of voting, as long as ballots are not counted until Election Day.
Today, many states have opened up their election processes to early voting, either by mail or in-person. The practice is quite popular today, with about one-third of the electorate deciding to cast ballots early, a rise from roughly 7% in the 1990s. This has greatly impacted recent elections, with 22 million people casting early ballots in the 2014 midterm election, at least 37 million people casting early ballots in the 2016 presidential election, and at least 33 million people cast early ballots in the 2018 midterm election. This new trend has led popular news sources such as Politico and Vox to publish early-voter guides covering each state.
Despite this increase in early voting in person or by absentee ballot, some states remain trapped in the past. Pennsylvania is one of only 20 states that require an excuse to vote with an absentee ballot. Out of these 20, only four states—Connecticut, Kentucky, and New York and Pennsylvania—do not have provisions that either allow for early voting or provide excuses that meet the needs of first responders and other professionals working long shifts¹. Until 1963, when the state constitution was amended, only military personnel were permitted to vote by absentee ballot in Pennsylvania. Now, you must meet one of the following requirements to be eligible to vote with an absentee ballot: (1) you are serving in the armed forces, Merchant Marine, or you are are outside the United States because of business; (2) you are the accompanying spouse or dependent of someone who is serving in the armed forces, Merchant Marine, or outside the United States because of business; (3) you are absent from your municipality during the time the polls are open because of work; (4) you cannot attend your polling place because of illness or disability or you are a veteran who is bedridden or hospitalized; (5) you are a county employee and cannot vote at the polling place because of your duties relating to the conduct of the election; (6) you cannot attend because of observance of a religious holiday; (7) you or your accompanying spouse are absent due to a leave of absence or sabbatical leave; (8) you are absent because you are on vacation; or (9) you are a college student who is attending school away from home.
Because of these restrictions, Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of votes cast on Election Day, at 95.2%. One particular restriction creates an impediment to voters who have to work on elections day: people who are outside of the municipality on Election Day are permitted to vote by absentee ballot, but those who work within the municipality do not qualify for an absentee ballot. This restriction disproportionately affects paramedics and firefighters because they are required to live in the municipality they service and are scheduled on 12-hour shifts beginning at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. Police officers, too, are usually required to live in the municipality in which they work for at least the first five years of their service. While their scheduled hours may not be as long as paramedics or fire fighters, they might have to work overtime if they receive a late call. While some workers begin their shifts an hour after the polls have opened, it is very common for people in Philadelphia to work in another part of the city, with a commute time of upwards of 30 minutes. This makes getting to work on time after voting or getting to the polls before they close after a shift nearly impossible.
Unfortunately, this issue will not be easy to change. There is no quick fix because the restrictions on absentee ballots are included in Article VII, § 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. This means that a constitutional amendment would be required to change or eliminate the absentee ballot excuse requirements. Efforts to reform this process in the past have failed. In 2004, Governor Rendell created an Election Reform Task Force to increase voter turnout, make absentee ballots more accessible, and comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. The task force recommended 11 changes to the absentee ballot procedure, including eliminating the excuse requirement. That suggestion, as well as almost every other suggestion, has never been implemented. Pennsylvania’s current governor, Tom Wolf, has indicated he is interested in changing election procedures, but some believe this is simply a tactic to win re-election. Moving forward, only a constitutional amendment or federal mandate could increase access to absentee ballots.
Despite these absentee ballot restrictions and the lack of early voting in Pennsylvania, private employers in the state are trying to build a culture that encourages voting. For example, Philadelphia-based La Colombe instructs managers to allow employees vote when they can. Many companies with employees in Pennsylvania, including La Colombe, have signed on with “Time to Vote,” an organization that is working to increase voter participation on Election Day. These steps are crucial given the uphill battle to enact absentee ballot reform and the Pew Research Center’s report that 35% of the voters who failed to vote in the 2014 midterms cited scheduling conflicts with work or school. In a state like Pennsylvania that does not require companies to give workers paid time off to vote, this cultural shift is necessary.