Approximately 60 percent of Pennsylvanians show up to the polls during presidential general elections. During municipal elections, turnout can dip as low as 40 percent. “We have a challenge here in Pennsylvania when it comes to actually voting,” says Pa. Secretary of State Pedro Cortes. “A large percentage of our population don’t exercise their right to vote.”
Pennsylvania was the 21st state to enact online voter registration. Today 30 states have such systems. To register to vote online, visit register.votesPA.com. March 28 is the deadline to vote in the upcoming April 26 primary.
We sat down with Cortes this week for a Q&A during his visit to Pittsburgh. Hear our full conversation on the video, as well as his message to Spanish-speaking residents.
What brings you to Pittsburgh?
I’m here in Pittsburgh to promote and let the world know that we’re very excited about reforms that we’re undertaking at the Pennsylvania Department of State as it relates to elections. We have a commitment to ensure that every eligible citizen has a meaningful opportunity to register and vote. And we launched online voter registration last year in August, and we have seen tremendous success, reaching over 100,000 users by Feb. 19. It happens that the 100,000th user was from Allegheny County. And today we’re already at 116,000 users. We want to spread the word of how secure and convenient and safe it is to use online voter registration.
El Secretario de Estado Pedro Cortes insta a los ciudadanos elegibles a registrarse para votar
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With all due respect, there are 12 million people in Pennsylvania. Why is this a victory?
Well, it is a victory because in addition to online voter registration, we also update records through PennDOT when someone registers. So if you add those numbers with those who are registering by paper, we’re making some progress. About 40 percent of those using online voter registration [are] using the tool to update their records. And, every time you update a record, what that means is our voter rolls are more accurate. … In addition to the convenience and the ease of use for the registrants, the other entity that benefits tremendously from online voter registration are the counties. … And historically on presidential election years, they get inundated with thousands of applications that they would otherwise have to enter manually. Many of those applications are illegible. Sometimes they're missing information, which means that the counties have to expend or dedicate a significant amount of money or resources to hire additional staff for data entry, and then all the back and forth with mailing and phone calls to try to obtain the missing information. By using online voter registration, the information is provided fully and it makes the experience for the voter and for the counties much more smoother.
Why did it take until 2016 to get this system in place?
I would love to tell you that in Pennsylvania our election reforms move as quickly as in other states, but that’s not the case. Back in 2005, I chaired the Pennsylvania election-reform task force … and we came up with over 20 recommendations for reform in Pennsylvania and 10 years later we had none adopted. So for us to be able to come at a time in 2015, and within 8 months, already have a significant election reform was a big victory for the department. And that we didn’t do alone. We worked very closely with the counties, with stakeholders, with the legislature. So we’re happy that we are where we are.
This week we saw record numbers of Republican voters going to the polls in the states that held Super Tuesday primaries. Are you seeing any spike in Republican voter registration in Pennsylvania?
The trend in terms of online voter registration and traditional registration remains fairly constant, although there is a spike, or an increase, in those who are registering Republican. In Pennsylvania, the primaries are closed, which means that only those registered as Republican can vote in the Republican primary, and the same for the Democratic primary. We still have a large number of Pennsylvanians registering as independents. Those individuals will not be able to vote in the primary. But in general, we’re seeing an increase [in registration], and it happens every presidential year. Particularly in 2016 [because] you have a contested election, the numbers are coming up. But historically in Pennsylvania, in terms of registration, you have more Democrats than Republicans, and the trend is continuing just about the same.