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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Pa. Republicans challenging undated mail-in ballots want to win more elections, experts say

An election worker continues the process in counting ballots for the Pennsylvania primary election, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at the Mercer County Elections Board in Mercer, Pa. Vote counting continues as Republican candidates Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick are locked in a too-early-to-call race for Pennsylvania's hotly contested Republican nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Keith Srakocic
An election workecounts ballots for the Pennsylvania primary election, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at the Mercer County Elections Board in Mercer, Pa.

The latest legal challenge over undated mail-in ballots would likely benefit Pennsylvania’s Republican candidates if it were to succeed. Experts say that’s what the party’s brass are counting on.

“It’s pretty simple: they want to keep likely Democratic votes from being counted,” Christopher Witko, a political science professor at Penn State, said. “Mathematically, if you can prevent mail-in ballots from being counted, that’s most likely going to harm Democratic vote totals.”

“Principles [about mail-in balloting] are involved, but principles are a distant second to wanting to win elections,” he added.

The latest mail-in ballot application data from the Department of State appears to back that up. More than 1.2 million voters have asked for a ballot by mail for next month’s midterms. 860,000 of that group are registered Democrats, while just over 232,000 are registered Republicans.

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Lawyers for Pennsylvania’s state and national Republican parties are challenging the Wolf administration’s guidance that counties include ballots lacking a handwritten date on an outer envelope in vote totals next month.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week tossed out a lower federal court decision backing up that guidance as moot — but Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman said the guidance would remain because a Commonwealth Court decision from August supporting it was still valid.

The guidance decision drew condemnation from Republican leaders like Rep. Seth Grove, who heads up a key House committee that considers election legislation.

“This is just another example of Democrats picking and choosing which laws and court rulings they want to follow and enforce,” Grove said in a statement.

Chatham University associate political science professor Jennie Sweet-Cushman said the strategy challenging mail-in votes might have harmed the GOP in an earlier time, when more conservative voters relied on the method to cast their ballot. She said the coronavirus pandemic — coupled with relaxed remote vote-by-mail rules ushered in by Act 77 — pushed more Democrats to favor the practice.

“The dynamics of who was using that to cast their ballot changed dramatically,” Sweet-Cushman said. “[Republicans] never would have had an advantage if they had done it before then.”

During the May primary, only about 800 ballots cast by voters in three counties were challenged because they lacked a handwritten date. Though far more mail-in ballots were counted by comparison, Sweet-Cushman said disqualifying those undated votes could be a game changer for Republicans up and down the ballot.

“When you’re talking about a state like Pennsylvania, where so many of these races are won on razor-thin margins, a handful of ballots can matter,” she said.

Altogether, undated mail-in ballots have been challenged in court three times this year. It’s not clear whether the latest effort will succeed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where the case was filed, has yet to set a hearing date. Justices are not obligated to hear the case before polls close on Nov. 8.