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Adopting modern methods, making voting easier are good for democracy

Even though it sometimes feels like it would have to move faster just to reach glacial pace, Pennsylvania’s election system is slowly moving into the 21st century.

Beginning Monday, voters now have an online option to apply for an absentee ballot (www.votespa.com/applyabsentee). The absentee ballots will then be mailed out (and by that we mean using the good ol’ U.S. Postal Service) for voters to fill out and then mail (again, meaning using those big, blue boxes or the person driving the vehicle with the steering wheel on the wrong side) back to the county election office.

Previously, voters could only complete a paper absentee ballot application and mail or hand-deliver it to their county election office for processing.

But not just anyone is eligible for an absentee ballot. In Pennsylvania, absentee ballots may be cast by individuals with illnesses or disabilities, individuals who will be away from their municipality on business on Election Day and Pennsylvania students attending out-of-state colleges or universities, among others.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Keystone State has dipped its electoral toes into online waters.

In August 2015, Pennsylvania launched online voter registration. Since then, more than 1.4 million applicants have used the site to apply for a new voter registration or update an existing registration.

This is proof that making access easier for eligible voters will directly lead to more participation.

We expect a similar surge (at least percentage-wise) in absentee ballot applications, now that it, too, can be done online.

We can hear the critics now claiming that an online process makes it easier for people to defraud the system. But the problem of people trying to cheat the election system predates the invention of the internet, the computer or even the nation’s first electric grid. For as long as there have been elections, people have lied on paper and in person, and in a vast majority of cases, those people are not successful.

We also understand that there are those of you who — by choice or by circumstance — are not tech savvy. This doesn’t replace the tried and true methods of “snail mail” or visiting the voter registration office. It just adds a convenient option for those who do most other things online already.

The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot for this fall’s election is 5 p.m. on Oct. 29. The deadline for county election offices to receive voted absentee ballots is just three days later, on the Friday before the election. This year, that deadline is 5 p.m. Nov. 1, so, we urge you to apply as soon as possible.

And while the online applications will be forwarded directly to the appropriate county elections office for processing, voters must still mail or hand-deliver the voted absentee ballots to their county elections office by the deadline in order for their vote to count.

The online application is currently available to all domestic Pennsylvania voters, and will be available to military and overseas voters by 2020. Initially, online applications will require a PennDOT driver’s license or ID number. The Department of State is planning an update, also by 2020, that will allow applicants without a PennDOT number to use the online system.

The new system is certainly not perfect. But it is one small step toward modernizing the way we elect our leaders in order to make participation easier. Given Pennsylvania’s traditional role of being a key swing state in national elections, modern methods and easier participation are things our commonwealth sorely needs.

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