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Paul R. Morcom

Ever since the voting laws were codified in 1937, under the Pennsylvania Election Code [1], there have been election laws pertaining specifically to disabled persons. The Pennsylvania Voter Registration Act of 1995 [2] has now made it easier for all people to register to vote, especially disabled persons. There are three main areas that affect disabled persons when they want to vote. These are voter registration, actual voting at the polling place, and voting by absentee ballot. The following summary of the election laws of Pennsylvania sets out the procedure that disabled persons should follow in order to vote as easily as possible.

The first thing a disabled person has to do is register to vote if he is not already registered, or if he has recently moved. No individual is permitted to vote at any election unless the individual is registered. A person who is qualified to register to vote can register in four different ways: (1) in person before the registration commission, a commissioner, a register or a clerk of the commission, (2) when applying for a driver's license, (3) by sending in the proper registration application, or (4) a person can register to vote at other government agencies such as the marriage license bureau, or public assistance offices.

The voter registration application asks for the voter's name, address of residence, date of birth, designation of political party, telephone number, and race. During registration someone who knows he will need assistance at the time of voting because he can not mark the ballot, operate the voting machine, or enter the voting compartment without assistance, must do either of two things to make sure assistance will be provided when he goes to vote. 25 P.S. 961.904. At least ten days prior to the election, he must personally make application to the commission, registrar, or a clerk. The application will require the entry of the exact nature of the disability on the elector's registration card. However, if this has not been taken care of and the disability is not entered on the registration card, the elector may still receive assistance if the elector completes a declaration in the polling place at the time of voting. Id.

The second area of concern is how disabled persons go about voting at the polling place. At every primary and general election, each elector who desires to vote must first sign a voter's certificate so that the election officer can compare the elector's signature on his voter's certificate with his signature in the district register. 25 P.S. 3050(a). This is required to prevent fraud. However, if any elector is unable to sign his name at the time of registration, or if having been able to sign his name when registering, he then becomes unable to sign his name at the time of voting, the voter certificate signature requirement is bypassed. 25 P.S. 3050(b). Instead, if the elector can establish his identity to the satisfaction of the election officers, a certificate will be prepared for him by one of the election officers, upon which the facts as to the disability of the elector will be noted and attested to by the signature of the election officer. Id.

With regard to assistance in the act of voting, no voter is permitted to receive any assistance in voting at any primary or general election, unless there is recorded upon his registration card his declaration that he has a physical disability. 25 P.S. 3058(a). In such case any elector who is entitled to receive assistance is allowed by the election judge to select a person of the elector's choice to enter the voting compartment with him to assist him in voting. 25 P.S. 3058(b). The election judge must keep a record of the assistance. 25. P.S. 3058(c). The record is to contain the voter's name, a statement of the facts that entitle him to receive assistance, and the name of the person furnishing the assistance. Id.

The third area dealing with disabled persons and voting is absentee voting. Any qualified registered and enrolled elector who because of a physical disability is unable to attend his polling place or operate a voting machine is entitled to vote by an official absentee ballot in any primary or general election held in this Commonwealth. 25 P.S. 3146.1(k). In order to vote in this way, the disabled person must send a letter or other signed document to the county board of elections in the county in which his voting address is located. 25 P.S. 961.5102. The application for an absentee ballot must be signed by the applicant and is to include the applicant's name, occupation, date of birth, length of time a resident in the voting district, residence, post office address to which ballot is to be mailed and such other information as shall make clear to the county board of elections the applicant's right to an official ballot. 25 P.S. 3146.2. In addition, the application shall include a declaration stating the nature of the disability and the name, office address and telephone number of their attending physician. Id. If an elector entitled to an absentee ballot is unable to sign his application because of the physical disability, he will be excused from signing upon making a statement which shall be witnessed by one adult person in substantially the following form: "I hereby state that I am unable to sign my application for an absentee ballot without assistance because I am unable to write by reason of disability. I have made or have received assistance in making my mark in lieu of my signature." Id.

An elector may get assistance in voting his absentee ballet if two conditions are met. 25 P.S. 3146.6a. First, the exact nature of the disability must be recorded on the registration card. Id. Second, the person must submit with their application for an absentee ballot, a statement setting forth the precise nature of the disability and that to the best of their knowledge and belief, they will still be suffering from that disability at the time of voting their official absentee ballot. Id. Upon receipt of the official absentee ballot, the voter may select an adult person to assist him in voting. Id. The adult person rendering the assistance in voting is required to fill out the date and sign a declaration that he has caused the elector's ballot to be marked in accordance with the elector's instructions. Id.

Finally, if a disabled person is unable to file his application for an absentee ballot before the first Tuesday prior to any primary or election, he is entitled to an absentee ballot at any time prior to five o'clock P.M. on the first Friday preceding any primary or election. 25 P.S. 3146.2a. However, the person must file an Emergency Application which contains a supporting affidavit from his attending physician that states that due to the elector's physical disability the elector was unable to apply for an absentee ballot on or before the first Tuesday prior to the primary or general election. Id.

Probably, most people are not aware of the special election rules set out for disabled persons, especially those who are supposed to benefit from them. Hopefully, this summary of the specific election laws for disabled persons will help some of those who are disabled to register and vote either in person or by absentee ballot, thereby giving them a voice in the election process.

This information was provided by Paul R. Morcom a 3rd year law student at Widener School of Law, Harrisburg campus.