Sec. Cortés and the future of elections
Late last week, Secretary of State Pedro Cortés sat down to a conversation that focused on the voting process in Pennsylvania and the development of new strategies for election reform.
The event was hosted by AL DÍA News, and held at the Pyramid Club, and was an exclusive opportunity to hear Cortés’ expectations of the current political season and the prospects of modernizing the voting system in Pennsylvania.
“We look at elections as the foundation stone for our democracy. If we don’t have a system that works then you don’t have confidence in those that you elect,” Cortés said.
On Nov. 3 Pennsylvania voters will cast ballots for county and local offices, as well as seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court.
Following two resignations and a retirement, three new justices will be elected to 10-year terms on the seven-member bench of the Supreme Court. It is believed to be the first time since colonial days that so many seats are open in one election.
Cortés acknowledged that this is the most historical election in decades. “The voting public loses sight of how important municipal elections are. What I hope is in the minds of registered voters is that on Tuesday we get to elect our members of city council, the mayors, county commissioners and judges. (Some of) those whom we elect will govern and will have a saying in our lives at least for the next 20 years,” Cortés said.
Looking at Pennsylvania’s landscape for election reform Cortés highlighted that during the Rendell Administration he was chair of the Pennsylvania Election Reform Task Force. “After developing a report with 20-plus recommendations that we put forth in 2005, to this day we have adopted zero (of them),” he said.
Cortés was asked about different initiatives being implemented in different parts of the country, such as mandatory or same day voting, and about the likelihood that they might be adopted in Pennsylvania.
He said he didn’t see online voting on the near future. “It has been used in a number of countries abroad. I think the technology exists, or will exist very soon, but I think is more about the will — it would be beneficial — in terms of politically being able to get there, because it would require legislation.”
In terms of same day voter registration, Cortés said he would like to see it happen but he is not optimistic about it. “It is another measure that requires legislative enactment. But I think is another measure that ought to be considered.”
And considering that the General Assembly currently has a Republican majority, there are certain voting initiatives that are even less likely to be adopted: mandatory or compulsory voting, for example, a system that according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance is being implemented in at least 26 other countries, in which failure to vote is usually punishable by a fine.
For Cortés this system could bring a new set of problems. “You get into constitutional issues and freedom of speech by enforcing the vote. What we find is that it increases the participation but the challenge with that is, if you have any folks who are physically not engaged, not interested, not informed, sometimes they vote almost in protest. I don’t know if that necessarily moves democracy forward.”
Other initiatives unlikely to be adopted are those related to non-citizen permanent residents.
“I don’t underestimate nor do I loose hope in our legislature. I like to think in the end you are elected and you are there not just for some sort of self preservation but also for the greater good of everyone,” Cortés said. “At the moment we are going to focus our energies as a department on attainable, meaningful reforms that we can accomplish without legislation, as well as continue the dialogue with the legislation.”
Cortés went on to describe the different initiatives the Pennsylvania State Department is looking to implement in the near future including a “Civics 101 roadshow.”
“We are going to be talking to students at the middle school level, high school and we are going to go on to colleges,” Cortés said. “We are also going to visit communities that historically may have not had the opportunity to hear why civic engagement is so relevant.”
He added that they are also looking to improve the accuracy of Pennsylvania voter records through ERIC (Electronic Registration Information Center), a non-profit corporation governed by a board of directors made up of member-states, that for now include Alabama; Nevada; Colorado; Oregon; Connecticut; Rhode Island; Delaware; Utah; Louisiana; Virginia; Maryland; Washington; Minnesota and Washington D.C.