Across the U.S., the process to register to vote and cast a ballot is different in every state. And we’re not just talking about minor details. The entire registration process and timeline can vary widely from one state, as do the regulations surrounding campaign finance and electoral maps.
Pennsylvania tends to fall on the more restrictive side of things, and Governor Tom Wolf is trying to change that. Earlier this year, he announced the 21st Century Voting Reform Plan, which includes same day voter registration, changes to the absentee ballot process, as well as campaign finance reform.
Kathy Boockvar, Senior Advisor to the Governor on Election Modernization, has spent the past few months traveling to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to build consensus the plan. We talked with her about using technology to increase voting access without compromising voter data in the process, and about the criticism from Pennsylvania Republicans that the voting reform plan is a convenient tactic for a Democratic governor in an election year.
While this episode talks specifically about Pennsylvania, the compromises that must be made across counties and municipalities exists everywhere and is indicative of why states are sometimes referred to as “laboratories of democracy.” It’s also an insight into the hard work that it takes to make large-scale change to one of the most fundamental parts of democracy.
- Are there any problems that you’ve noticed in your state’s voting procedures?
- If so, what improvements would you like to see your state enact?
- As voting systems move more towards technological advancements, are you worried about data security?
- Do you think the systems we currently use have been influenced by foreign entities?
- Do you think there is a political motivation behind the efforts in Pennsylvania to changing voting procedures including the redistricting campaign?
[4:30] What do you think of when you hear the term “electoral modification”?
Kathy: We have a chance to advance both our technology as it relates to voting, as well as enabling more people to get to the polls. One example is the replacement of our aging voting machines. Also, we want to improve the way in which we register people to vote.
[5:40] Can you talk a little about how the governor’s voting plan came about?
Kathy: The governor is dedicated to ensuring that everyone has access to vote. Globally, we actually have a very low level of voter turnout. This plans includes not just the effort to increase vote turnout but also to address campaign finance reform and redistricting efforts. So there is a lot of work to do.
[6:30] Is there something you’re trying to tackle first?
Kathy: Absentee voting is one area we are addressing now. The State department has been working with the counties to work on improving this process, such as not requiring an excuse to be able to vote absentee. The way people travel and commute has change. We think this should lead to an updated voting procedure. We think we can really streamline the entire process
[8:00] It sounds like a daunting task. What do you think has contributed to the inability to make these changes in the past?
Kathy: There are many important partnerships between the state and local municipalities. This change doesn’t happen in a vaccine and requires cooperation with all of these small local governments.
[9:00] Do you find that concerns are different throughout the state, such as between urban areas like Philadelphia as compared to more rural areas?
Kathy: Every county is different from the next. Due to this, we aren’t going to find a magic solution that makes everyone happy. Therefore, coming to an agreement is going to require a lot of give and take between everyone.
[10:30] Do you look around the country and see the process of any particular state as a goal to reach here in Pennsylvania?
Kathy: All of the aspects of the plan we’re trying to instill have been introduced in other places. I’ve spoken with those in other states to discuss what they’ve done to improve their operations, such as updating the voting machines. Another example is same day registration, which has been adopted by many other states including D.C. This gives us a lot of great models to work from.
[11:30] Some have expressed concerns about Russia being able to hack the older voting machines. Is this a concern of yours?
Kathy: What a lot of people don’t realize is just how many security measures we have in place to protect the election. Also, that we are constantly expanding these. It is actually very difficult to conduct wide spread hacking of our system because of these checks. However, another problem is the age of our machines. One problem this brings is that newer operating systems may not be supported by these older machines going forward.
[13:20] Can you speak a little about the redistricting effort that we’ve seen?
Kathy: I think it’s becoming rather clear that the way in which these lines have been drawn does not reflect the intentions of the founders. Also, it doesn’t serve the best interests of the voters themselves. Therefore, we strongly support a change of the procedure to put the decision making in the hands of those who aren’t directly invested in the outcome of the redistricting. We also support not having political considerations involved in the process of drawing the lines. These efforts should get us back to the original intentions of having nice square districts that group similar communities together.
[15:00] How do you strike a balance between using technology to advance the system while also keeping voter information safe?
Kathy: Data security is going to be an issue we have to worry about for a long time going forward. This impacts every area of our life from medical information to our voting information. In terms of voting information, it is important to remember that there are many checks in place protecting your information. Also, it is important that people know that their voting results are never connected to the internet. Our systems are never linked up to any network. All results are personally delivered to the higher ups who officiate and confirm the election results.
[17:20] Republican opponents of the governor have claimed that this effort he is engaged in is simply a political move. Could you speak to that a little?
Kathy: The governor has been dedicated to this effort for decades well before he became governor. At the same time, we’re realistic about the political climate here and we realize that this won’t all pass this year. It is important to start this conversation. Given that we’re a battle ground state, it is concerning that we rank around the middle of the pack on voter turnout.
[21:00] What motivates you in this work?
Kathy: You never feel more connected to the idea of democracy than when you’re working to expand those who participate in the process via voting. The conversations with the individual counties is absolutely a part of that process in Pennsylvania. The people involved in this are very committed to making sure every vote is counted.