Tuesday, June 6, 2017

PA Voters Registered on Time Could Not Vote Because of Administrative Delays

Fourteen Nonpartisan Organizations ran a coordinated Voter Registration effort in 2016 that collected 24,996 Applications. However, some of these Applicants were not added to the Voter Rolls for weeks or even months after their Applications had been submitted. Some were never registered at all.

Leaders from the Organizations asked Keystone Votes, a coalition of 39 Member Organizations dedicated to modernizing Elections, to conduct an analysis to determine what happened. Two key problems have been identified:

- Voter Registration Applications processed too late: 55,708 Applications Statewide weren’t finalized by Counties until within eight days of the General Election: 46% were ultimately added to the rolls, but too late to receive an Identification Card or appear in the main Poll book. The Majority of these late processed Applications, 17,000, were in Philadelphia.

- Voter Registration Applications potentially Lost or Unprocessed: Among more than 2,000 Voter Registration Applications submitted in eight large Counties across the State, more than 350, or 19%, were potentially Lost or Miss-Processed. In addition, three small Non-Partisan Voter Registration drives are certain that the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Office Lost or
Incorrectly entered about 15% of Applications they submitted.

At least 26,000 Pennsylvanians were potentially Disenfranchised, despite having Submitted a Valid Voter Registration Application on time. That number could increase if the Department of State or other Agencies investigate further.

The Majority of Disenfranchised Voters are in Philadelphia. An immediate remedy is required in that County. The problem of Lost or Late-Processed Applications experienced in the other Sixty-Seven Counties is likely the result of Systemic Challenges. These issues can and should be addressed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly by:

1) Providing Funding for Simple Technological Updates to County and State Databases that would Drive more Registrants to Online Voter Registration.

2) Providing County Election Offices with Funding for Extra Staff in busy years.

3) Updating the 1937 Election Code, as it creates Unnecessary Bureaucracy which leads to Delays and Mistakes.

A review of Statewide Data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State at the request of the Public Interest Law Center found that 25,429 complete and On-Time Applications were not completely processed by Counties until October 31st, 2016 or later. These Voters likely experienced problems, principally:

1. Late Distribution of Voter Identification cards: Registrants whose Applications were Finalized so close to the Election likely did not receive Voter Identification Cards. These Cards provide Voters with Written Verification of their Eligibility to Vote, as well as their Precinct Name and
Location. Without receiving an Identification Card, some Voters may have assumed they were not Registered and thus did not attempt to Vote at all. And not providing an Identification Card to a Voter before the Election potentially Conflicts with the Pennsylvania Election Code.

2. Voters relegated to Supplemental Poll Books: The names of Registrants who were not added to the State’s Master Voter File after October 31st, 2016 were likely Not Included in Counties’ Pre-Printed Poll Books used on Election Day; instead, they were part of a Supplemental Poll Book.
The Supplemental Poll Book creates Confusion for Volunteer Election Workers, especially during high turnout Presidential Elections. Some Poll Workers know to find a Voter in the Supplemental Book if they are Not Listed in the Pre-Printed Poll Book. Voters listed in either Book cast a
Regular Ballot. However, some Voters may have been inappropriately required to cast a provisional ballot. Other voters turned away altogether. Across the State, and in the vast majority of Counties, very few Voter Registration Applications were added to the State’s Master Voter file after October 31st.

The Statewide average was only 0.4%. Delaware County, with 340 Voter Registration Applications processed after the October 31st, 2016 deadline, exemplifies this 0.4% average.

Five of the State’s Twenty Largest Counties beat the .04% average:
• Cumberland: 0.03% (or 15) processed late of 43,605.
• Beaver: 0.06% (or 12) processed late of 18,747.
• Lackawanna: 0.09% (or 23) processed late of 25,627.
• Lehigh: 0.1% (or 66) processed late of 66,249.
• Dauphin: 0.1% (or 23) processed late of 49,594.

After Accepting an Application and entering it into Voter Roll Database, the Commission must mail a Voter Identification Card to the Voter, 25 Pa.C.S.A. § 1328(c). However, Voter Registration Applications that were not Fully Processed, meaning that the County decided to accept or Reject the Application, until on or after October 31th occurred at significantly Higher Rates in Five Counties:

Philadelphia 3.8% 8.5x higher, 17,164.
Mifflin 3.4% 7.5x higher, 192.
York 2.8% 6x higher, 1,440.
Montgomery 2.0% 4x higher, 3,074.
Centre 1.3% 2.25x higher, 455.

The Committee of Seventy and Volunteers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law analyzed a sample of 2,149 voter Registration Applications drawn from Non-Partisan Voter Registration Drives conducted in Eight Large Counties:

87% appeared to be complete and valid; 13% did not. Of the 87% Complete Applications that appeared to contain all of the Statutory Information required to have been added to the Rolls,
1,528 were added to the Voter Registration Rolls. 352 Voter Registration Applications were not.
This Sample was not representative and therefore cannot be extrapolated to the Voting Public at large. However, it is alarming that 19% of Valid and On-Time Applicants may have never been Registered to Vote.

The problems in Philadelphia County were particularly egregious:

• Asian Americans United: On 7/21/16 Asian American United Staffer Wei Chen delivered a Package of Registration Applications to the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Office. A staff Member accepted the package and confirmed that it contained 37 Applications. As of 9/21/16, none of the Applicants appeared in the State’s “FIND VOTER REGISTRATION STATUS” web tool. Chen called the Commissioners’ office, where a Staff Member reported that they had been Lost and asked Chen to provide Photocopies of the Applications so the Office could process them. After supplying the Photocopies, the 37 were never added to the Rolls.

• Project HOME: On 10/11/16 Project HOME submitted 131 complete, valid Registration Applications to Voter Registration staff in the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Office on Delaware Avenue. On 2/9/17, Project HOME Staff reviewed Copies of these Applications and determined that 29 of 131 Applications, over 22%, were not on the Rolls.

• Penn Law American Constitution Society: Student Leaders could not find 16% (13 of 83) of Applications submitted in Philadelphia using the State’s Lookup Tool. On 1/17/17, they met with Deputy Commissioner Seth Bluestein in Commissioner Al Schmidt’s Office. Bluestein determined that Four of the Applications had been approved but Entered Incorrectly by Staff; the remainder could not be found. He also stated that of the 197,222 total Applications received in 2016, 49,627 were not approved. At 25.1%, this Rejection Rate is twice the Statewide Average.

Two other issues emerged that warrant Investigation by Individual County Election Officials and the PA Department of State:

• Managing Rejected Voter Registration Applications: In 2016, 195,312 Voters across the Commonwealth who tried to Apply for or Change an Existing Voter Registration were Rejected. 59,489, just over 30%, forgot to fill out just one box on the Form. How many Registrations could have easily been approved if Counties had more leeway to address obvious Omissions?

• Inconsistent Application of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA Law): The Department of State’s Voter Registration Activity Data demonstrates disparate treatment among Counties: some reject Registration Applications that Fail the HAVA check whereas others move these Applicants into “Pending” status. A 2002 HAVA Law requires Counties to Check all Applicants’ Driver’s License Numbers and/or Social Security numbers against a Statewide Electronic Registry.

In our Democracy, the prospect of even one Vote going Uncounted merits followup. 26,000 potentially Disenfranchised Voters require it. In Philadelphia, an immediate Remediation Plan is required, not to mention a determination of the total number of potentially Disenfranchised Voters. The Rate of Problems outside of Philadelphia is smaller, but systemic. Further, and more comprehensive, Investigation of potentially Lost or Late Processed Voter Registration Applications across the State is required. Here are some initial Recommendations to solve the Problems named in this Report:

The Pennsylvania Department of State should:
• Issue Guidance to County Election Directors to Standardize: 1) the timeline for Voter Registration Processing, and 2) County Election Office Hiring, Recognizing the Seasonal nature of Voter Registration work. Research might clarify, for example, the Per Capita needs of a Voter Registration Office during Presidential Cycles.

• Offer Counties Simple, Scaleable Technological Solutions to allow voters to Upload Missing Information rather than spending time and money on Mail and Phone-Based follow-up, or outright Rejecting Applications that are Missing this Information. 8,659 voter Registration Applications were Rejected in 2016 because the Signature field was Blank. Another 16,499 were Rejected because they did not respond to a Mail piece from their County asking them to Correct a mistake.

The Governor and the Executive Branch of state Government should:
• Significantly Reduce Paper-Based Registration. The Pennsylvania Department of State’s decision to Build the most Innovative and Robust Online Voter Registration System in the U.S. was an important first step. Voter Registration volume was significantly greater in 2016 than in 2012 because of Online Voter Registration. However, hundreds of thousands of Voters still relied on traditional Paper Voter Registration Forms. HAVA says simply that the Applicant must be assigned a Unique Identifier, not that the Applicant should be Rejected. Of note, the HAVA Check is largely Automated in the Online Voter Registration System. Paper Registration Forms are costly to Process and more prone to Error. To make voter Registration a Truly Paperless process, as many State and County Agencies as possible should automate Voter Registration. Simple Technical Updates to Existing Database programs are Low-Cost and the Registration Applications obtained through these means are much less prone to being Lost or processed Late.

The General Assembly should:

• Fund the entire Amount requested by the Department of State in its FY 17-18 Budget Request.

• In Consultation with the State’s County Election Directors, the Department of State, and Advocates, Update the 1937 Election Code and Voter Registration Statute. Much of current election Practice is rooted in an antiquated understanding of Technology and Communications, which poorly serves Voters in the 21st Century.

• Provide additional Funds to the Department of State and to County Election Offices to hire additional Staff during Busy Elections, not to mention provide Flexibility for Counties to peruse Innovative Ideas such as Electronic Poll Books which would obviate the need for a 30-day Pre-Election Registration deadline. Traditional Paper Poll Book Print Deadlines should not Drive Voter Registration Application Deadlines.

In Conclusion, At least 26,000 Voters were likely Disenfranchised in 2016. The high volume of Paper Voter Registration Applications in Presidential years is causing Delays that Prevent Voters from having a Normal Voting Experience. It is also possible that Counties sometimes lose Voter Registration Applications. One County stands apart from the rest. In Philadelphia, the number of Applications Approved too Late was Twice the Statewide Average. And it is possible that between 2 out of every 10 Voter Registration Applications submitted in Philadelphia were Lost. Local Leaders need to Investigate further. While the problems were particularly egregious in Philadelphia, all across the State, County Election Offices are facing challenges they cannot overcome on their own. These are important to address for the Sanctity of our Democracy.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Department of State, Governor Wolf, Elected County Leaders, the State’s Election Directors, and Advocates, must Modernize Pennsylvania’s Elections and Guarantee that all Voters have Access to the Ballot Box.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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