PHILADELPHIA -- Early voting is coming to Pennsylvania in time for the presidential election. Sort of.
Under a new law, people will have the option of requesting and submitting an absentee ballot during one in-person visit to county elections offices, starting more than a month and a half before an election day. It's not technically what most people understand as "early voting" -- people won't be using the usual voting machines -- but it's a method for people to cast ballots in person in advance of the actual election without worrying about deadlines and mail problems.
And while it won't be equally available across the state, it could play a role in the 2020 election: Pennsylvania has historically been one of the more restrictive states for absentee voting, and the expanded access to mail-in ballots could lead to significant changes in how votes are cast across the critical battleground state.
It's part of the biggest election policy changes in decades. Under the law, enacted late last year in a compromise between Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and Republican legislators, voters are no longer required to provide a justification for requesting a mail-in ballot. That starts with the April 28 presidential primary.
The new law requires every county to accept absentee ballots in their local elections office. But the Pennsylvania Department of State is now encouraging counties to go beyond that minimum: Counties can open additional offices and use them outside of traditional business hours, including on weekends, expanding in-person voting far beyond the traditional 13 hours on a Tuesday.
How much it expands will depend on both the will of county officials and the money available to them. County elections officials are already under pressure to implement major changes to the state electoral system in a high-turnout presidential election year.
"For our county, it would be impractical, not very effective, and financially, logistically, just undoable. We don't have the staff," said Forrest Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania. "If it doesn't benefit us, I'm not sure how it would benefit a whole lot of counties unless they had really high populations."
The result could be a patchwork system across the state where some counties, particularly the wealthier and more populated ones, are able to open more early-voting sites and potentially increase turnout. Smaller counties, particularly rural and poorer ones, may be less able to do so.
That, Lehman said, "really raises questions about equal treatment of voters across counties and possibly within counties."
Two-thirds of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, including Lycoming, have fewer than 100,000 registered voters. Almost half have less than 50,000.