Pennsylvania modifies several mail-in voting procedures

In the last two weeks, a court order and a settlement have resulted in modifications to several mail-in voting procedures in Pennsylvania.

State directs counties not to reject ballots due to signature mismatch

On Sept. 14, the League of Women Voters and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh dropped a lawsuit against the state after election officials issued guidance directing counties not to reject a mail-in ballot due solely to a perceived mismatch between the signature on the return envelope and the signature on the voter’s registration record.

The guidance, released Sept. 11, lays out the following directions for county officials (emphasis added):

If the Voter’s Declaration on the return envelope is signed and the county board is satisfied that the declaration is sufficient, the mail-in or absentee ballot should be approved for canvassing unless challenged in accordance with the Pennsylvania Election Code.The Pennsylvania Election Code does not authorize the county board of elections to set aside returned absentee or mail-in ballots based solely on signature analysis by the county board of elections.[1]

State supreme court extends mail-in ballot receipt deadlines, authorizes drop-box returns

On Sept. 17, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an order extending the mail-in ballot receipt deadline and authorizing the use of drop boxes for returning mail-in ballots in the general election. Mail-in ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 3, and ballots lacking any indication they were sent after this date, would be accepted if received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6.

Writer for the court’s majority, Justice Max Baer said:

Under our Extraordinary Jurisdiction, this Court can and should act to extend the received-by deadline for mail-in ballots to prevent the disenfranchisement of voters. … We additionally conclude that voters’ rights are better protected by addressing the impending crisis at this point in the election cycle on a statewide basis rather than allowing the chaos to brew, creating voter confusion regarding whether extensions will be granted, for how long, and in what counties.[1]

The high court declined to bar officials from rejecting mail-in ballots submitted without secrecy envelopes (sometimes referred to as “naked ballots”). State authorities had previously advised counties that they should count naked ballots.

Justices Debra Todd, Kevin M. Dougherty, and David N. Wecht joined Baer’s opinion. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justices Sallie Mundy and Christine Donohue dissented in part from the majority opinion. Baer, Donohue, Wecht, Dougherty, and Todd are Democrats. Saylor and Mundy are Republicans.

Political context

Pennsylvania is a key battleground in the presidential contest. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump (R) defeated Hillary Clinton (D) in Pennsylvania 48.2-47.5 percent. Barack Obama (D) carried Pennsylvania in both 2008 and 2012, defeating John McCain (R) in 2008 54.5-44.2 percent and Mitt Romney (R) in 2012 52-46.6 percent.

Ballotpedia has identified four of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts as battlegrounds in the general election: the 1st, 7th, 8th, and 17th districts. A Republican represents the 1st District. Democrats represent the other three. Overall, Pennsylvania’s current U.S. House delegation is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Absentee/mail-in voting modifications since our last issue

Since our Sept. 9 edition, we’ve tracked the following absentee/mail-in voting modifications:

  • Arizona: On Sept. 10, Judge Douglas Rayes of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ordered election officials to give voters until 5:00 p.m. on the fifth business day after the election to sign their vote-by-mail ballot envelopes if they failed to sign at the time they submitted the ballots.
  • Louisiana: On Sept. 16, Chief Judge Shelly Deckert Dick of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana ordered election officials to make available to voters in the Nov. 3 and Dec. 5 elections the same COVID-19 absentee/mail-in ballot application used in the state’s summer elections. This application offers COVID-19-specific reasons for requesting an absentee/mail-in ballot.
  • Michigan: On Sept. 18, Judge Cynthia Stephens of the Michigan Court of Claims issued a ruling extending the absentee/mail-in ballot receipt deadline to Nov. 17 for ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 2. Stephens also authorized voters to allow anyone of their choosing to return their ballots between 5:01 p.m. on Oct. 30 and the close of polls on Nov. 3.
  • Mississippi: On Sept. 18, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that had extended absentee/mail-in voting eligibility to individuals with “pre-existing conditions that cause COVID-19 to present a greater risk of severe illness or death.”
  • New York: On Sept. 18, the League of Women Voters reached a settlement agreement with New York election officials over ballot curing provisions for the general election.
  • Ohio: On Sept. 11, Judge Stephen L. McIntosh of Ohio’s Franklin County Court of Common Pleas barred Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) from rejecting absentee/mail-in ballot applications submitted via fax or email.
  • Rhode Island: On Sept. 11, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) announced that her office would send absentee/mail-in ballot applications to all active registered voters in the general election.
  • South Carolina:
    • On Sept. 18, Judge J. Michelle Childs of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina issued a preliminary injunction barring election officials from enforcing South Carolina’s witness requirement for absentee/mail-in ballots in the general election.
    • On Sept. 16, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) signed H5305 into law, extending absentee/mail-in voting eligibility to all qualified electors in the general election. The legislation also established Oct. 5 as the start date for in-person absentee voting (i.e., early voting).
  • Wisconsin: On Sept. 21, Judge William M. Conley of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin issued an order extending the absentee/mail-in ballot receipt deadline in Wisconsin to Nov. 9 for ballots postmarked on or before Election Day. Conley immediately stayed his ruling, giving defendants seven days to file an emergency appeal.

To date, 38 states have modified their absentee/mail-in voting procedures for the general election. These modifications can be divided into the following five broad categories:

  • Automatic mail-in ballots: Five states (California, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont) are automatically sending absentee/mail-in ballots to all eligible voters in the general election. These states are shaded in yellow in the map below.
  • Automatic mail-in ballot applications: Eleven states (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) are automatically sending absentee/mail-in ballot applications to all eligible voters in the general election. These states are shaded in dark blue in the map below.
  • Eligibility expansions: Twelve states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia) have expanded absentee/mail-in voting eligibility in the general election. These states are shaded in light blue in the map below.
  • Deadline extensions: Five states (Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania) have extended absentee/mail-in ballot application or return deadlines in the general election. These states are shaded in dark gray in the map below.
  • Other process changes: Five states (Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia) have made other modifications to its absentee/mail-in ballot procedures for the general election. These states are shaded in gray in the map below.
General election absentee voting changes September 23.png

Redistricting developments since our last issue

Since our Sept. 9 edition, we’ve tracked the following redistricting-related developments.

  • On Sept. 10, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York struck down a presidential memorandum from President Donald Trump (R) directing census officials to “exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status.”
  • In its per curiam (unsigned) opinion, the panel ruled that the president’s memorandum violated federal census and apportionment laws as follows:
    • “First, pursuant to the virtually automatic scheme established by these interlocking statutes, the Secretary [of Commerce] is mandated to report a single set of numbers — ‘[t]he tabulation of total population by States’ under the decennial census — to the President, and the President, in turn, is required to use the same set of numbers in connection with apportionment. By directing the Secretary to provide two sets of numbers, one derived from the decennial census and one not, and announcing that it is the policy of the United States to use the latter in connection with apportionment, the Presidential Memorandum deviates from, and thus violates, the statutory scheme.”
    • “Second, the Presidential Memorandum violates the statute governing apportionment because, so long as they reside in the United States, illegal aliens qualify as ‘persons in’ a ‘State’ as Congress used those words.”
  • The panel included Judges Richard Wesley, Peter Hall, and Jesse Furman. Wesley and Hall are George W. Bush (R) appointees. Furman is a Barack Obama (D) appointee.
  • On Sept. 16, the Department of Justice filed its notice of appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to take up the matter.

Litigation tracking

To date, we have tracked 236 lawsuits and/or court orders involving election policy issues and the COVID-19 outbreak. In each issue of The Ballot Bulletin, we shine a spotlight on what we consider one of the more interesting recent developments in this area. Click here to view the complete list of lawsuits and court orders.

This week, we turn our attention to Ohio Democratic Party v. LaRose.

  • Case name: Ohio Democratic Party v. LaRose
  • Case number: 20CV-5634
  • State of origin: Ohio
  • Court: Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, Ohio Court of Appeals for the Tenth Appellate District
  • Summary: On Sept. 15, Judge Richard Frye of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas ruled that Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s (R) order directing counties to provide no more than one absentee/mail-in ballot drop box per county “lacked a legitimate basis in evidence” and was “unreasonable and unlawful.” Frye initially stopped short of suspending the order, noting that LaRose had previously said he supported “additional drop boxes if they are legal.”
    • In response to the ruling, Maggie Sheehan , a representative for LaRose, said, “Today’s ruling didn’t change anything, and the secretary’s directive remains in place.”
    • On Sept. 16, Frye enjoined the order. However, anticipating LaRose would appeal, Frye immediately stayed his injunction. On Sept. 21, LaRose filed his appeal with the Ohio Court of Appeals for the Tenth Appellate District.

Legislation tracking

To date, we have tracked 314 bills that make some mention of both election policy and COVID-19. States with higher numbers of relevant bills are shaded in darker blue on the map below. States with lower numbers of relevant bills are shaded in lighter blue. In states shaded in white, we have tracked no relevant bills.

Legislation related to elections and COVID-19, 2020

COVID-19 election bills September 23.png