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Panel: Pa.'s primary should be moved up
The Intelligencer    25 April 2005


HARRISBURG - The state's primary election should be moved from May to early March in presidential years to give Pennsylvania greater weight in national elections, according to a task force convened by the governor to review the state's election law.

The task force also is recommending that the state allow voters to file absentee ballots for any reason and be able to do so by fax or electronically. It also suggests state lawmakers look into whether electronic and other voting machines need a paper trail to prevent election fraud or glitches.

But the group backed away from any changes to the winner-take-all electoral college system for presidential elections, and it ruled out allowing people to register to vote on Election Day. The task force was almost split down the middle on those two issues.

The group settled on its final recommendations on Tuesday. A formal report will go to the governor and lawmakers on May 12.

"Some of the recommendations are drastic on the way things should be done. Others give further clarification. And others we decided are issues that don't need much change," said Secretary of State Pedro Cort?s, at the close of what was the last meeting of the 13-member group.

"This comes from (the governor's) strong belief and commitment to not only making the process fair, but in a way that invites greater participation by voters," Cort?s added.

The group included Cort?s, public advocacy organizations, election officials, former judges and one lawmaker appointed by House Republicans, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18 (Bucks). They met for three months to comb through suggestions on changing how Pennsylvania votes in light of the national acrimony over hair splittingly close elections and this state's own trouble spots in 2004.

Pennsylvania had seven of the 50 counties nationwide with the highest number of voter complaints in the 2004 November election, according to a tally undertaken by NBC News and the public advocacy group Common Cause (which also participated in the task force). Allegheny County ranked number one in the nation (5,976 complaints), followed further down in the tally by over a thousand complaints each in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, Westmoreland and Chester.

Further details on the complaints were not available since Common Cause hasn't analyzed all the data from calls to the 800-MYVOTE1 hotline.

"This is a very timely event of this task force," said Pennsylvania Common Cause Executive Director Barry Kauffman.

Cort?s said he believes the November election was fair and problems mainly stemmed from the stress imposed by record-breaking turnout and the use of provisional ballots for the first time. Provisional ballots allow voters whose names don't appear on the voting roster to submit a paper vote to be checked and tallied later by election officials.

Still, the task force called for no major changes to provisional ballots. Instead, it focused largely on overhauling absentee voting, in particular to prevent a repeat of last year's uproar when absentee ballots going oversees to the military were mailed out with the name of presidential contender Ralph Nader, before the courts removed his name from the ballot.

The task force recommended that Pennsylvania courts must decide cases involving ballot nominations no later than one week prior to the date when absentee ballots must be sent oversees.

DiGirolamo said he thinks that one, and other "common sense" suggestions will get a lot of support from the Legislature. The recommendation to move the primary date forward also will be heavily debated, he predicted: "That's the one issue I think will come to the forefront."

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