Mailed Ballots Can't Be Discarded Over Signature, State Says

Sep 15, 2020

With concerns rising in Pennsylvania that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over technicalities, officials in the battleground state told counties that they cannot reject a ballot solely because an election official believes a signature doesn't match the signature in the voter’s file.

The new guidance from Pennsylvania's Department of State prompted the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh to drop a lawsuit in federal court Monday.

The groups had sought to ensure that voters have the chance to fix ballots that are either missing signatures or flagged for a perceived signature mismatch.

"As a result of this case, Pennsylvania voters can cast their vote without fear that their ballot could be rejected solely because an election official — who isn’t trained in handwriting analysis — thinks their signatures don’t match," said Mark Gaber, a Campaign Legal Center lawyer who represented the groups in court.

But, with seven weeks until the Nov. 3 election in the presidential battleground state, a partisan stalemate in Pennsylvania’s Capitol is holding up legislation to fix glitches and gray areas in the state's mail-in voting law.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the Legislature's Republican majorities are clashing over how to prevent vast numbers of ballots from being discarded because of technicalities and how to head off the specter of a presidential election result hanging in limbo on a drawn-out vote count and legal fight in Pennsylvania.

The stalemate over legislation prompted Wolf, at a press conference on Tuesday in York, to press lawmakers anew to act on changes he is seeking.

Republicans have said that any changes must ensure the election is secure. Democrats accuse Republicans of pursuing voter suppression tactics, including trying to outlaw drop boxes and satellite election offices that Democratic-heavy counties in southeastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, are planning.

To help count mail-in ballots quickly after polls close, Wolf and Democrats want to give counties up to three weeks before Election Day to start processing them, instead of the three days favored by Republicans.

To ensure fewer mail-in ballots are discarded, Wolf wants to require counties to count mail-in ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day, provided they are postmarked by the close of polls at 8 p.m. on Election Day. Republicans oppose that, and would rather move the deadline by which voters can request a mail-in ballot, from a week before the election to 15 days before, to leave more time for them to return it.

Without an agreement on legislation, “we really do risk becoming Florida in 2000,” state Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, told the news conference.

A 2019 state law greatly expanded access to mail-in balloting in Pennsylvania and, fueled by concerns over the pandemic, more than 3 million voters are expected to cast ballots by mail in the Nov. 3 election.

That's more than 10 times the number who voted by mail in the battleground state in 2016's election when President Donald Trump's 44,000-vote victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania helped propel him to the White House.

In Pennsylvania's June 2 primary election alone, when 1.5 million voted by mail, more than 26,000 of ballots were rejected, including for “signature-related errors or matters of penmanship," the lawsuit had said.

Thus far, nearly 1.9 million people have applied for a mail-in or absentee ballot, Wolf's top elections official, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, said Tuesday.

For now, counties are still awaiting one court decision before they can get ballots printed and send them to voters who applied for a mail-in ballot.

In that case before the state Supreme Court, Democrats are trying to keep the Green Party’s presidential candidate off the Nov. 3 ballot, saying he did not properly submit a candidate affidavit to the state elections office in August.