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As millions of Pennsylvanians head to the polls this November, some key mail-in ballot questions remain unresolved, opening the door for more legal action and public confusion in the wake of the upcoming gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections.
In a recent live event with Spotlight PA, Acting Secretary of State Lee Chapman emphasized that these issues will not affect the accuracy of the vote. But the rules for basic voting mechanisms, such as ballot boxes or the ability for voters to correct a mistake on a ballot, can vary by county.
So people planning to vote by mail should check their local rules to make sure there aren’t any problems with their ballots, Chapman said.
“I really want people to plan to vote,” she said. “Think about it. Do you want to vote by mail?”
Elections in Pennsylvania have become highly political, and the state’s election laws have some gray areas. The plethora of vote-by-mail rules largely dates back to 2019, when the Legislature and governor passed a bipartisan overhaul of the Commonwealth’s election laws and allowed vote-by-mail without excuses for the first time.
That law, Act 77, does not say, for example, whether counties should be able to contact voters who mailed in ballots with errors and allow them to correct them, a process known as ballot treatment. The law also makes no mention of ballot boxes and how they should be regulated. They are a common tool used by states to speed up ballot submissions.
Courts have ruled on some of these issues, and the State Department has also tried to clear up some of the confusion by issuing guidance on still-unsettled areas.
Last month, for example, the department gave legal guidance to counties about how to count mail-in ballots, drop-box policies and what to do with emails from outside groups asking for illegal purges of voter rolls.
These guidelines are part of the State Department’s efforts to keep local officials abreast of evolving precedents and try to keep regulations consistent across the Commonwealth. But it is not legally binding — and this approach has its opponents, mainly in the Republican Party.
“If there’s a perception that the guidance coming out of the secretary’s office is contradictory, or not well thought out, or not necessarily the force of law, I think some counties are likely to ignore it,” said Matt Haverstic, a Philadelphia representative. attorney who often works for Republican clients. “And we need clarity right now, in the Electoral Code and the electoral process.”
But Haverstick also acknowledges that these legal battles aren’t just about a lack of clarity. They became their own political arena.
Both Democrats and Republicans, he said, believe the court is “just another place to fight battles that people may not want to believe were successful or finally decided at the time of the vote.”
With two major statewide contests this November — for governor and U.S. Senate — and likely lawsuits, and little consensus on which practices are best, some county officials say they plan to proceed with caution.
Dauphin County Elections Director Jerry Fizer told Spotlight PA that “when it comes to things that are subject to litigation,” he said, “we’re going to look at the instructions that are presented in consultation with our attorney.”
Mail-in ballots give voters more flexibility and tend to increase turnout. But the widespread use of mail-in voting also means that many people fill out ballots without supervision, which can lead to eligible voters making minor mistakes that invalidate their ballot.
Sometimes voters forget to sign the envelope. Sometimes they make a grade where they shouldn’t, or in Pennsylvania forget to include the inner envelope of the secrecy of your vote.
According to NPRhundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots are routinely thrown out during major elections due to errors. About half of the state work to limit that number by systematically reaching out to voters who have made mistakes and giving them the opportunity to correct their ballot.
Pennsylvania law does not require ballots to be purged, but neither does it prohibit it. which led to a scattered approach. Some constituencies regularly contact voters who make mistakes and try to correct them. Some allow political parties to do this work. Others do nothing.
This led to a trial in 2020 on the eve of that year’s election The Democrats tried without success get the state Supreme Court to mandate that the ballots be cured. Republican lawyers filed several equally unsuccessful lawsuits after the 2020 election, challenging the count of cured ballots.
The issue remains legally unsettled.
Pennsylvania The Commonwealth Court recently ruled that precincts can contact voters to correct ballots, but don’t have to. National Republicans, who oppose the practice, have already appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to hear the case.
It’s unclear whether the court will act ahead of the midterm elections, but for now it’s likely that voters’ ability to correct errors on their ballots will depend on where they live.
Drop Box availability varies greatly from county to county.
A 2020 state Supreme Court ruling upheld them and the Wolf administration gave the counties a list of rules for the boxesincluding making sure they cannot be moved or manipulated, and that they must be monitored by video surveillance “where possible”.
But the filing boxes have also been a major point of contention for Republican lawmakers. However, many believe that they create opportunities for fraud there is no evidence that ballot boxes in Pennsylvania or other states resulted in vote fraud in 2020.
across the country, about 16% of 2016 voters to vote using drop boxes, NPR reports.
Several ongoing lawsuits could still determine whether some counties use the boxes, including Lihai, Lancasterand Chester. In other cases, it depends on the county commissioners, who are often part of the election boards.
“These decisions are actually happening right now,” Chapman said. “The local county election boards are meeting, they’re voting on where the collection boxes are going to be and whether they’re going to have ballot boxes at all.”
“If you want them in your community,” she added, “go to those board meetings and write it down.”
The State Department recently issued guidance ordering counties to calculate undated mail-in ballots—those in which the voter has not put a date on the outer envelope—provided they are returned by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day.
Such ballots have been in court since 2020, the first year Pennsylvania voters could request absentee ballots.
State judges initially allowed such ballots to be counted only in the 2020 general election due to extenuating circumstances of the pandemic, but invalidated them for future elections.
The State Department supported that interpretation until a federal court ruled that the date does not help detect fraud, so enforcement of the provision violates voters’ civil rights.
A case asking the US Supreme Court to rule on the legality of undated ballots is pending planned for a conference in early October. However, it is unclear whether a final ruling will be issued before the November elections.
Counties are preparing for the upcoming competition with this uncertainty in mind. Dauphin County, for example, separates undated ballots in case a late court order again means those ballots cannot be counted, said Fizer, the local elections director.
Given the looming threat of litigation and the possibility that legal precedents in some areas of Pennsylvania election law may change, the best choice for a voter is to always follow the letter of the law.
- Register to vote until October 24.
- Request a postal vote by November 1st, although you should do it much earlier if you can.
- Use the inner secrecy envelope. A ballot without it is known as a “blank ballot” and will be discarded.
- Sign the voter declaration on the outer envelope.
- Date the outer envelope.
- Return the ballot by 8pm on Election Day.
If you’re unsure of your county’s politics, you can find contact information for local county election officials here.
Read our full story, plus key dates, campaign finance data, sample newsletters and more on our website Website of the Central Election Commission 2022.
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More analyzes of the issues will be published in the coming weeks.
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