Pennsylvania to let voters apply online for absentee ballots

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvanians who will not be able to vote in person this fall can apply online for absentee ballots for the first time, officials announced Monday.

The Wolf administration said voters can begin next week to use the new process to obtain absentee ballots for the Nov. 5 election.

Voters will still have to mail or hand-deliver completed ballots to elections offices by 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1.

Applicants will need a PennDOT driver license or ID number, although that is expected to change next year. The program will also be expanded in 2020 to military and oversees voters.

The online option will add convenience to an existing system that requires applicants to fill out paper forms and deliver them by hand or mail to county elections offices.

Critics of the existing system have argued that changes to Pennsylvania’s comparatively strict absentee voting rules would make voting easier and more widespread.

The administration says more than 1.4 million voter registration applications have been made or registrations changed since August 2015, when the state began to offer online voter registration.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said the changes will make the absentee ballot application process faster and more accessible for thousands of voters.

House Republican spokesman Mike Straub said GOP state representatives support “lawful absentee ballot access.”

“While the current effort by Gov. Wolf falls within the scope of existing law, any further changes would necessitate legislation,” Straub said.

Wolf’s office said he has authority to make the absentee application change because the Election Code allows the secretary of state to create the application form for absentee ballots, and another state law permits electronic signatures to be used wherever a written record is required.

Senate Republican spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher called the new procedure a step toward improved access to absentee ballots.

“We still believe meaningful legislative changes such as the ones vetoed by the governor earlier this year still need to be made in order to significantly improve the commonwealth’s voting practices,” Kocher said.

In July, Wolf vetoed legislation that would have loosened absentee voting deadlines and helped counties purchase new voting machines because, in part , it also would have ended the straight-party ticket option. Wolf supports letting people vote by absentee ballot even if they don’t have an excuse about why they can’t vote in person.

Absentee ballot applications will be accepted starting Monday, Sept. 16. The deadline to apply this year is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29.

Absentee ballots are allowed for voters who are sick or disabled, who will be away out of town on business on Nov. 5, or who are Pennsylvania students attending out-of-state colleges or universities, among others qualifications.