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Pennsylvania Department of State Celebrates Black History Month

Tags: History, Voting
February 14, 2020 04:55 PM

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On February 12, 2020, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar was honored to speak at the 2020 Multi-Agency Black History Month Celebration at The Forum in Harrisburg. This year's theme for Black History Month is "African Americans and the Vote." The following are her remarks.

Good afternoon. I'm very pleased to be here with all of you to celebrate Black History Month, and especially to commemorate our journey to achieve voting rights for all and highlight the progress we continue to make.

The Department of State oversees elections in the commonwealth, working closely with all 67 counties. It's a responsibility that we take very seriously, working hard every day to ensure that all Pennsylvanians can exercise their voting rights.

This year, we mark two historic points in our nation's history: the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment granting black men the right to vote, and 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

Voting is the foundation of our democracy, allowing citizens to have a voice in the direction of their country, their state, and the towns they call home.

The road to equal voting rights in America has been a long one, paved at times with staggering injustice as well as enormous and hard-fought triumph.

While we celebrate these historic anniversaries, they call on us to reflect on how the promise of voting rights was not equal in the U.S. for nearly 200 years.

As the latest generation of voting rights advocates, we must honor the memories of those who sacrificed for our rights and build upon the work of those who came before us.

Women, black men and their allies were the backbone of the movements to expand voting rights.

They understood the importance of the right to vote, to be valued as citizens of these United States.

Those activists who worked for decades to pass the 15th and 19th amendments and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 knew that they might not live to see the full right to vote in their lifetimes.

Nonetheless, they fought hard to ensure that those who came after would have a voice.

One of these women was Frances Harper, who settled in Philadelphia in 1890.

She was an abolitionist and suffragist who understood the complex issues within these movements.

In 1866, spoke at the National Women's Rights Convention, where she called for equality not just between men and women but between white women and black women.

She noted that everyone's rights are intertwined, saying:

"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul."

Just down the street from where we are now, Frances Harper will be honored in a statue later this year for her role in American history.

She will be depicted handing the 15th Amendment back to a man to convey that the work was not finished because women -- both black and white – did not yet have the right to vote.

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to women like her and to so many others who fought for these rights far too recently.

Last year, I had the privilege of visiting Alabama with 17 of my fellow secretaries of state from around the country.

We traveled to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, all of which were central to the civil rights movement, and which hold a history where our own people inflicted grave wounds on our fellow citizens.

Secretaries of State of all backgrounds and political persuasions walked arm in arm across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as Dr. Martin Luther King and other activists did in 1965, in support of voting rights.

We heard directly from those whose family members had endured unspeakable violence in order to fully have a voice in their own country.

This trip was a humbling and inspiring experience, and a poignant reminder that we ALL have been granted the opportunity and responsibility to make a difference in this world and to leave it a better place.

The Department of State honors all those who fought and sacrificed to secure these inalienable rights, and we are committed to ensuring that every citizen has equal access to their vote, for ourselves and our children and grandchildren.

While so much incredible work has already been done to protect voting rights, we know that there is still much left to do.

As history teaches us, voting should not be a privilege of a few; it should be available and accessible to all.

That is why we at the Department of State are working around the clock to implement Act 77, historic bipartisan legislation passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Wolf last fall. Act 77 will make most significant improvements to PA's election code in more than 80 years.

The changes in Act 77, as well as the progress made on many fronts of our election security initiatives, including upgrading our voting systems to auditable paper ballot systems, will make voting easier, more accessible, and more secure for all eligible citizens.

These reforms have been a priority of Governor Wolf and a personal priority of mine as a former voting rights and civil rights attorney and poll worker, which is why I can't tell you how honored I am to be overseeing this progress at this moment in history.

Here are just a few benefits of the new law:

  • Voters will be able to vote by mail-in ballot for any reason or no reason at all – just because they want to! In addition to our current absentee law which requires an excuse, PA will now join more than 30 other states to offer no-excuse-needed mail-in voting.
  • This week our online application for mail-in and absentee ballots went live, so go to to submit yours today!  Applications for mail-in or absentee ballots must be received by your county elections office no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday April 21st.
  • The deadline for casting or delivering your voted absentee or mail-in ballot has been extended to 8 p.m. on election day. This will allow more time for voters to submit voted ballots, which you can do either by mail or in person at a county election office. 
  • Once ballots are finalized by your county, voters may go to in person to their county election office, apply for, complete and cast their mail-in or absentee ballot all in one visit.
  • Voters can also apply to be placed on an annual mail-in or absentee ballot list. If you wish to join this list, you can request to receive applications for mail-in ballots for all primary, general, and special elections held in a given year, and you don't have to reapply until the following year.
  • The deadline to register to vote has been extended to 15 days before the election.

We at the Department of State will work tirelessly to honor the sacrifices of all those who fought for voting rights, not only to implement all these improvements for voter access, but also to ensure that no eligible voter is ever disenfranchised and to secure and safeguard our elections for every citizen. We believe all Pennsylvanians are even more enriched by the significant diversity in candidates of color who have been leading the way to run for office in recent years – thank you for your leadership and commitment! The Department of State is committed to providing extensive support to make this journey easier, not only for this generation but generations to come.

Thank you.

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