Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail law expands access for everyone except the poor

In Philadelphia, language barriers, unstable housing and lack of internet access make voting by mail difficult

Published October 28, 2020 5:29PM (EDT)

Election office puts mail in ballots into a container  (George Frey/Getty Images)
Election office puts mail in ballots into a container (George Frey/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on ProPublica.

Rem Em emigrated from Cambodia in 2002 to help take care of a grandchild with leukemia. Twelve years later, she became a U.S. citizen. It was one of the proudest moments of her life.

Ever since, she's made sure to vote, even though the native Khmer speaker isn't fluent in English. She talks to her family, other Cambodian immigrants in her South Philadelphia neighborhood and community groups about the candidates and the races. Before she votes, she studies what her preferred candidate's name looks like in English, noting as well the shapes that form the word "VOTE."

Then she goes to the polls, where she hands her ID to a poll worker she can't understand, signs a poll book she can't read and scrutinizes the shapes on the voting machine in front of her, carefully identifying the lines and curves she's memorized.

"I want my voice to be heard," Em, 70, said this month through an interpreter. "The reason why I became a U.S. citizen is because I want to vote."

Em, who is retired from a factory job and lives on Social Security, could benefit from the state's 2019 law that expanded voting by mail. It's easier to do the high-stakes matching of patterns in the privacy of your own home than in a cramped space with people waiting on the other side of the curtain. This year, for the first time, any registered voter in Pennsylvania can apply for and receive a mail ballot without having to give a reason for being unavailable on Election Day.

But in the poorest big city in America, a law that passed with bipartisan support and was touted as providing historic access to the ballot box is doing little to boost turnout among low-income Philadelphians, according to a data analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer and ProPublica. Instead, they are casting ballots in person when they do vote — even during a deadly pandemic that has disproportionately affected low-income people and people of color.

The law has enhanced access for middle-class and affluent voters who would likely have voted anyway, attracting much higher use in Philadelphia's wealthier neighborhoods, the Inquirer/ProPublica review found. More than 392,000 Philadelphians had requested general election mail ballots by Oct. 20. In the 10 highest-income ZIP codes, 47% of voters have requested mail ballots. In the city's 10 lowest-income areas, only 27% of voters have done so.

In the June 2 primary election, when Philadelphia was in a strict coronavirus lockdown, just more than half the votes were cast by mail, with the usage much higher in wealthier neighborhoods. In the 10 ZIP codes with the highest median household income, 73% of votes were cast by mail; in the 10 poorest, only 38% were. Low-income voters were more likely to vote in person, despite the potential risk of contracting COVID-19. (These figures exclude a small number of ballots where the method of voting isn't included in the state voter roll.)

Overall, turnout in the 10 lowest-income ZIP codes fell to 26.8% in June from 35.2% in the 2016 primary. By contrast, the 10 wealthiest ZIP codes decreased to 38.8% from 43.6% in 2016.

The disparities center on economic status and not race, our analysis found. Nearly 1 in 4 residents lives below the poverty line in Philadelphia, making it the only one of the 20 largest cities by population with a poverty rate of 20% or higher, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. While race and income are deeply intertwined, more affluent areas with high usage of mail ballots include the predominantly Black neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia, where turnout is consistently among the highest in the city.

Among the obstacles for poor Philadelphians: A lack of stable housing makes it difficult to depend on the mail and know which address to provide when applying for a ballot to be mailed weeks or months later. Those with limited English proficiency have difficulty navigating the vote-by-mail process, and governmental voter outreach can miss them. Lack of internet service or home computers can complicate requesting ballots or finding key information about them.

The law skipped over key elements that could have helped poor voters in the city — including easier voter registration through automatic or Election Day sign-ups and the kind of in-person early voting that is drawing long lines and record turnout in other states. It also doesn't require drop boxes where voters can hand-deliver ballots, though Philadelphia is installing some.

Em is familiar with these barriers. She doesn't have a computer to make it easier for her to request a ballot. The application form isn't available in Khmer. And voting by mail doesn't work for a voter who can't actually read her mail: Em collects hers in a plastic bag that she takes to an Asian American social services group every few weeks. A volunteer there helps her sort through it.

Plus she's wary of voting by mail — and neither the government nor many community groups have prioritized educating low-income residents like her about the law.

"I'm just scared," she said. "I'm not sure how that would work."

"Just another law on the books"

Act 77 was one of the most significant changes to Pennsylvania election law since the state's election code was written in 1937. Its passage late last year was accompanied by much fanfare about expanded voting access.

"For too long Pennsylvania has made it too hard for the citizens to actually fully participate in our democracy," Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said at the bill-signing ceremony. "These changes will make it easier for people to vote, participate in our democracy, actually to take care of the most fundamental responsibility of citizenship: voting."

But implementing the law has been particularly challenging in a pandemic where voters are seeking mail ballots in far greater numbers than were expected last year. Act 77 has spurred ongoing lawsuits and legislative fighting about voting procedures and access, igniting fears of a dayslong delay in counting votes that could make Pennsylvania the 2020 equivalent of Florida in 2000, where a disputed outcome left the courts to decide the winner. President Donald Trump's months of baselessly attacking mail voting as abetting fraud have sowed distrust of the method, especially among his supporters.

Overlooked in the partisan bickering has been the law's ineffectiveness with low-income voters. Interviews with dozens of voters, elected officials, voting advocates and experts in the months leading up to Election Day painted a consistent picture: Poor and low-income Philadelphians generally aren't benefiting from voting by mail.

"The intention was that it would be helpful," said City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who has advocated for poor and working-class Philadelphians. "I understand the intention. I celebrated it. ... But without the work to make sure that everyone knows about this, it's just another law on the books."

It's not that the law is suppressing minority and low-income Philadelphians' votes; it's that the barriers they face weren't taken into account when the law was enacted. In addition, the pandemic has hampered voter education and awareness efforts that could have widened use of mail-in voting.

State Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia, the vice chair of the state Democratic Party, said that, "on balance, we're better off" with the new law. But key provisions were left out, he said.

"The help to the poorest people in this legislation is primarily incidental," he said. "And you could call it accidental."

Systemic problems run deep

Pennsylvania began allowing online voter registration in 2015. Last year, it began allowing voters to request mail ballots online.

But tens of thousands of Philadelphia households lack broadband internet access or don't have a computer.

A 2019 school district survey found that only half of students said they access the internet at home, with responses tracing the city's socioeconomic lines. In some of the lowest-income neighborhoods, it was as few as 1 in 4 students.

The digital divide makes it difficult to vote by mail because the easiest way to request a ballot is by computer. It can also undermine voter turnout by reducing access to quality information about elections and candidates, as well as exposure to get-out-the-vote messages.

For example, voters have the option of providing an email address when they register to vote or request a mail ballot. Officials can use emails to provide election information and reminders, as the Pennsylvania Department of State did multiple times before the June primary election. But the percentage of voters whose email addresses are on file with the state is far higher in Philadelphia's wealthier neighborhoods than in poorer areas.

Voting is also not top of mind for people facing eviction, temporarily staying with friends or family, or homeless.

"I've been out of the loop on the issues and all that," said William Johnson, 59, as he stood in line recently for a box of vegetables and milk outside The Healing Center at Broad and Venango streets in North Philadelphia. He has a history of drug addiction, he said, and hasn't voted in years.

"I move a lot, too, so that sort of knocks it out," Johnson said. "I just forget all about it."

But when volunteers set up a voter registration table by the food distribution site last month, he signed up. He said he plans to vote — in person, because he doesn't trust the mail.

Even for those determined to vote, housing instability complicates the process. Although Philadelphia currently has a moratorium on evictions, more than 57% of renters ages 25 and up in the Philadelphia metropolitan area said in September that they were very or somewhat likely to lose their home to eviction in the next two months, according to a Census Bureau survey. Voting by mail is an unhelpful option for such voters: It doesn't make much sense to request a ballot if you don't know where you'll be living when it's sent to you, and if you do move, the U.S. Postal Service may not forward ballots to new addresses.

Since the 2016 presidential election, Lateefah Knight, 33, has lived at a Philadelphia shelter, in transitional housing, in an apartment, in a rooming house and with family and friends.

Knight, a caregiver for the elderly and people with disabilities, made sure to vote in 2016. But she was with a friend that day and went to her friend's polling place, so she had to cast a provisional ballot.

In 2018, she was relieved to find what she thought could be a more permanent home for herself and her now 4-year-old daughter. Initially, it seemed affordable. Not long after she moved into the three-bedroom apartment, the owner boosted the monthly rent to more than double her income, she said. She was evicted soon after.

So now Knight doesn't have a stable home. She stays at a West Philadelphia rooming house with her daughter's father or with family members or friends. She's spent at least a month's rent in application fees for housing, she said, but no one will rent to her because of her prior eviction.

"I'm floating right now," she said. "I'm just everywhere."

Her daughter is autistic and needs extra care. "I'm trying to move, trying to work," she said. "It's exhausting."

Knight hasn't tried to vote by mail out of fear something would go wrong with her ballot. "Something is going to happen," she said. "I want to make sure my vote gets in and it's definite."

Knight said she's committed to carving out time to make it to the polls. She's not sure where her polling place is, but she plans to go with a client who lives nearby so they can vote together.

"Election Day, I don't care how I have to get there, I'm going to get there. By any means necessary," Knight said.

"Not consciously forgotten"

It was a lack of money that drew both sides together to reform voting in Pennsylvania. But the issue wasn't poverty in Philadelphia — it was new voting machines that strained county budgets.

In 2018, Wolf ordered that every voting machine in the state be replaced with more secure systems with paper trails that could be manually audited or recounted, a massive financial burden that counties struggled to bear.

After earlier negotiations for state funding collapsed, Wolf and GOP leaders who control the state legislature moved the talks behind closed doors in the summer of 2019.

Wolf needed money for counties to buy and implement voting machines. Republicans wanted to end straight-party voting, which allowed voters to choose every candidate on a party's ticket at once. Wolf also wanted to ease what were then some of the country's tightest restrictions on absentee ballots. At a time before Trump's baseless allegations of fraud politicized mail-in voting, that was also acceptable to Republicans.

Lawmakers moved quickly once a deal was struck. Almost exactly a year ago, on Oct. 22, 2019, they added the mail-in voting expansion to an existing piece of legislation, which passed with bipartisan support. Wolf signed it into law nine days later.

The impact on low-income voters apparently played little role in the discussions.

"They're not consciously forgotten," said State Rep. Frank Dermody, who, as the state House Democratic leader, was aware of but not directly involved in legislative negotiations over the new law.

"We made it [voting] easier, we made it more accessible, but it wasn't perfect, and it probably isn't getting down to those folks," he said. "Nobody consciously decided we wanted to continue to pile onto those unfortunate folks, but we may not have addressed all their needs. That's for sure when it comes to the voting."

"It's not because of ill-will or anything," Dermody said. "It's just we're all busy, and maybe we're not focusing on that issue at the time."

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster who was majority leader at the time and is now House speaker, disagreed with the notion that low-income voters were forgotten.

"The bill was crafted in a way that the opportunity was there for everyone in terms of the ability to vote by mail," said Cutler, who participated in the negotiations. "I would offer they are being considered, because we tried to draft the bill in a way that would be open to everyone."

Wolf's office declined to make him available for an interview. State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County in central Pennsylvania, and Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, from Jefferson County south of Pittsburgh, also declined interview requests.

What actually helps people vote

Unlike 26 other states and Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania doesn't have traditional early voting. (It does have early mail voting: People can go to the county office, request a mail ballot and fill it out there.)

Besides an early voting system using voting machines, several other policies would be helpful in boosting turnout for low-income voters, said Chris Warshaw, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies political representation.

One is same-day voter registration, which allows people to register on Election Day, and another is automatic voter registration, in which people are registered by default when they interact with government services such as getting a driver's license. Twenty states have same-day voter registration, and 19 have automatic voter registration — plus Washington, D.C., in both cases. Automatically mailing ballots to voters and giving people paid time off to vote on Election Day could also make turnout more economically equitable, Warshaw said.

Lower-income voters tend to become more engaged as elections draw near, meaning voting before Election Day — and the accompanying deadlines — doesn't work well for them. It's one reason why poorer people tend to vote on Election Day, and why mail voting tends to be used by people who would have voted anyway, rather than helping bring out new voters, Warshaw said.

Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia city commissioner and the lone Republican on the elections board, noted that vote-by-mail patterns have generally tracked historical differences in voter turnout between rich and poor neighborhoods.

"Areas with the lowest turnout, which were largely poor and frequently not always English proficient … also have extremely low rates of mail-in ballot applications," Schmidt said.

Based on these early indications, state Rep. Donna Bullock, a Democrat from Philadelphia, expressed concern that Pennsylvania's mail voting system could exacerbate inequalities in ballot access because any increased turnout would come primarily from wealthier voters.

"While it doesn't suppress the vote of any particular group, and that's not the intent of it, does the access to it widen the disparities in the vote?" she asked.

Over the last three decades, low-income eligible voters have consistently been more than 20% less likely to vote than those making at least twice the federal poverty line, according to a recent analysis of Census Bureau voter surveys by Robert Paul Hartley, an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University.

This disengagement is perpetuated because policymakers generally ignore or forget nonvoters, giving them little reason to vote in the future, he said.

"There's this trick question," Hartley said. "Are campaigns not talking to their issues because they don't vote? Or are they not voting because people are just not speaking to their issues?"

"This is a population that could and might vote," Hartley said, pointing to some past elections, including the 2018 midterms, when they did turn out in greater numbers. "When motivated, they can show up."

Building on the current system

Some community groups are trying to boost the impact of the new law. Broad Street Ministry, a church in the heart of the city known for its social service work, serves as the mailing address for about 3,000 people who are homeless or housing insecure. So the ministry's pilot civic engagement project is handling an unprecedented challenge this year with its bustling mail room: helping all of those potential voters register and giving them the option to vote by mail for the first time.

"Most of them really want a mail-in ballot," said Zhane DeShields, who was registering voters there last month. "That's the first thing they ask."

At the same time, some elections officials are going beyond the law's requirements to help voters who might not otherwise benefit from Act 77.

From Pennsylvania's smallest counties of about 3,000 voters, to its largest in Philadelphia with more than 1.1 million, the law requires only one "early voting" location — the main elections office — and zero drop boxes. So local officials who want to provide more options are left largely on their own, with whatever funding they can scrounge up.

In Philadelphia, the city commissioners are opening more than a dozen satellite locations, thanks in large part to $2.3 million from a Chicago-based nonprofit. The commissioners deliberately included locations in low-turnout areas where few voters are requesting mail ballots, though they acknowledged those sites have much lighter traffic than others.

"They're tough decisions to make," said Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners. "I mean, honestly, you're in a position where you want to make sure that everyone who can vote is voting, and everybody has equal access."

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has encouraged counties to go beyond the legal minimum and temporarily open satellite offices where they can provide and accept ballots on demand, creating a type of one-stop early voting site.

In deciding where to locate those offices, the department encourages counties to consider factors such as transportation accessibility and past turnout and to open them on weekends and outside of business hours. In a statement, the department listed several other steps it has taken beyond the minimum required by law to increase access, including providing prepaid postage for returning mail ballots.

Because they aren't required by law, such efforts can be fragile, depending on the goodwill and priorities of whoever's in charge at a given moment. Will Philadelphia keep opening satellite offices if it doesn't receive nonprofit funding in the future? Will the state pay for postage in lower-profile elections?

Cutler, the House speaker, said he's open to further reform but wants data to guide future changes.

"We have to keep continuing to watch it, but ultimately, whether or not people choose to vote or not vote, driven by any number of things — their own life situations, or their desire to be involved or not involved — is ultimately a choice that they make," Cutler said. "And this is just about making sure there are some options that are safe and secure."

Looking ahead

In the meantime, Rem Em is getting ready to vote in South Philadelphia. Not by mail, but in person. She's scared of the coronavirus, but her mask is ready and her face shield sits on a table by the door.

Soon, she'll once again memorize the shapes that spell her candidate's name — though she politely demurs when asked whom she's voting for. And on Nov. 3, she'll take the five-minute walk to the recreation center around the corner.

She'll show her ID to the poll worker. She'll be directed to a machine.

And there, painstakingly matching the shapes in front of her, she'll exercise her cherished right to vote.

Joshua Eaton, Lauren Rosenthal and Thy Anh Vo with ProPublica contributed reporting.

This article is co-published with The Philadelphia Inquirer. Sign up here to get the next investigation. The story is part of the Electionland project, of which the Inquirer is a partner. 

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