With less than three months before the election, Pennsylvania elections officials were hit with another voting lawsuit Friday. This one alleges that thousands of votes could be discarded if mail-in ballot procedures aren’t changed.
The Campaign Legal Center is suing Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar, along with election officials in Allegheny and two other counties. The suit was filed in federal court Friday on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh for failing to tell Pennsylvanians who voted by mail that their ballots were rejected for signature-verification issues.
“Pennsylvania took the important step of making vote-by-mail available to all Pennsylvanians,” said Campaign Legal Center attorney Danielle Lang. “However, the current process does not allow voters to receive notice, or cure, any problems with their ballots. So, we could see a high number of eligible voters have their vote-by-mail ballots discarded for errors that could be easily fixed by the voter.”
Under the current procedure, those who vote by mail must put their completed ballot in a secrecy envelope, and put that envelope within another envelope, called the declaration envelope. That outer envelope must be signed and dated by the voter. When the ballot is received by the elections division, the signature on the declaration envelope is compared with one the county has on file.
Lang said election officials are not handwriting experts, and it’s concerning that they would be asked to determine whether a signature on a mail-in ballot matches the signature officials have on file.
“Folks could end up getting disenfranchised due solely to penmanship without some sort of notice and process for voters to fix errors,” she said.
The lawsuit notes that the state hasn't provided a uniform mechanism for such notification, and says that Allegheny, Bucks, and Philadelphia counties haven't crafted one. (Erie and some other counties, meanwhile, contact voters in the event of problems, but that is done by mail if the voter doesn’t provide a phone number or email information on registration forms.)
The suit demands that any signature-verification process be carried out uniformly, and that officials alert voters whose ballots are at risk of being discarded due to signature-related issues.
“That’s what we call a cure procedure,” Lang said. “That's an opportunity for the voter to confirm, 'Yes that’s my ballot, it wasn’t fraudulently cast by someone else, it’s mine and you should count it.'”
The November election is less than 100 days away, and voting by mail will begin well before that. But Lang doesn’t believe challenging the state’s voting procedures so close to the election is problematic. The Campaign Legal Center has brought similar lawsuits in New York, New Jersey and North Dakota. Lang said those states were able to resolve the issue within a matter of weeks.
“I don’t think it's going to cause any confusion whatsoever to give voters more notice,” she said. “The thing I think we should be most concerned with is that the 2020 election is coming up without a process to confirm that every eligible vote counts.”
Because Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by roughly 44,000 votes, both Democrats and Republicans are acutely aware that every vote matters in 2020. And Friday’s lawsuit can be added to the list of pending litigation that election officials face ahead of the November 3 general election. The Trump campaign, for one, has already sued over the use of drop boxes for voters to deposit their mail-in ballots.